Alejandrina Felipe was only 10 when her father, Antonio, died while visiting in Mexico with his wife and six children. He had worked hard in the fields of California and Oregon for many years, exposed to pesticides with no protection. While in Mexico, Antonio quickly got quite sick, but was unable to receive adequate medical care in time. A sophisticated hospital was more than six hours away in Oaxaca City. The family would later learn Antonio had an end-stage blood cancer, a lymphoma. Alejandrina’s beloved father died on in May of 1993.
Alejandrina’s mother, Paula Asuncion, had three boys and three girls to raise, all under 13 or 14. They returned to the states where Paula, a 34-year-old widow, worked picking strawberries and blueberries in Oregon’s fields with the help of her children in order to support her family.
They also received help from the nonprofit, Human Solutions in Gresham, along with help from Programa Hispano, St. Anne’s Catholic Church and friends. Today, Alejandrina and her family donate back to these same organizations that once helped them.
But Alejandrina’s life took a different turn when she found out from a high school adviser about a program that was seeking additional students from areas east of Portland. The YES Program (Youth Employment in Summers Program), offered work at Legacy Health hospitals for students from under-represented populations to expose them to potential careers in health care.
At first, Alejandrina wasn’t sure she’d like health care. “I was really scared,” she said, “but my high school adviser encouraged me and said, ‘Just go.’” Alejandrina found the work inspiring, and began to think about a career in health care. She’s been here ever since, recently receiving recognition from Legacy for her 15 years of service, the last six years as a registered nurse at Legacy Mount Hood Medical Center specializing in obstetrics.
From emergency room patient to caregiver
When Alejandrina first interviewed with Legacy, she admitted she had limited contact with health care and wasn’t sure what she was interested in doing. Like a lot of children of first-generation immigrants, she’d only come in contact with health care through the emergency room. This was especially true in the 1990s, before there were as many programs as there are now to support low-income families. Alejandrina said she remembered that as a child, she only got sporadic care through a local county clinic, and visited Legacy Mount Hood only once when she had strep throat.
Alejandrina said she worked her way through every department at the hospital that first summer: the family birth center, “med-surg,” the emergency room and more. She realized she really liked holding babies, so the family birth center was her favorite. Alejandrina’s coworkers say she was shy when she started, but they say she’s now a steady personality in even the most stressful situations.
After making minimum wage in high school, she was thrilled to make more money and be part of a professional track.
Even before participating in the YES Program, Alejandrina was interested in political science, law and social justice. She says she was very “goal driven” in high school to get good grades, go to college and have a professional career. As a junior in high school, she had the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C., with a special high school program, “Presidential Classroom,” designed for students wanting a greater understanding of U.S. government. As a result, Alejandrina had the opportunity to do a one-year internship in Sen. Ron Wyden’s Portland office. When Alejandrina graduated from Reynolds High School, she was awarded the school’s prestigious “Senior Cup,” given to one senior for exemplary community work and a solid GPA.
Alejandrina had been determined to go to college long before her Legacy internship. She understood the importance (and the opportunity) of a good education for helping her family and the larger Latino community. Her connection with Legacy gave her the support she needed to pursue a higher education. With scholarships from the YES Program at Legacy Health, she began to pursue her college education. The goal is to help high school students from under-represented backgrounds get their foot in the door to health care professions by offering paid internships and additional money for college as they work toward a health care career. The YES program has helped 82 students between 1999 and 2016.
Building a diverse workforce
Pamela Weatherspoon, Diversity and Community Engagement Program Manager for Legacy, says the YES Program is integral to the future of Legacy Health’s workforce. "We know that having a diverse workforce will make us stronger and assist us in providing quality care to all of our patients. This program actively provides a pipeline for students of color to enter into health care careers by providing them with 10-week summer internships in clinical settings, and educational scholarships," she said.
First woman in her family to graduate college
Alejandrina completed a certified nursing assistant (CNA) program at Mount Hood Community College after her manager told her a CNA certificate would help her get a job in her unit following her internship. Alejandrina focused on science classes in college in order to build up her pre-requisites, and eventually transfer to Portland State University, where she earned her Bachelor of Science in Community Health in 2006, becoming the first woman in her family to graduate from college.
But she wasn’t done. With scholarships from Ayudando Podemos and other organizations, along with support from Legacy Health, she started her nursing program at Linfield College, which matched her scholarships. While in her final year of nursing school, she traveled with a group to Cameroon, Africa, on a health promotion course. They worked with a local NGO, promoting health among women and children affected by HIV/AIDS and malaria. That experience broadened her appreciation for the excellent medical care we offer in the U.S., and the tremendous needs for those in developing countries.
Alejandrina received her nursing degree in May of 2009, becoming the first R.N. in her family.
Helping the family business
Alejandrina continues to help her family with their food cart and catering business, Mixteca Catering, located at the Portland Mercado on Foster Road
The name Mixteca (pronounced meesh-tek-a) comes from the name of indigenous people in Oaxaca called the Mixtecs, an advanced and complex culture in the region going back as far as 2,000 B.C. The name is also a tribute to Alejandrina’s father whose first language was Mixteco, and he was a descendant of the ancient Mixtecs. Alejandrina’s mother has worked hard all of her life, especially after her husband died. There were many years when her mother would have just enough to feed her six children each day. Alejandrina says the family business is an investment that will help care for her mother in old age. Alejandrina and her three brothers work with their mother to keep the business thriving.
An inspiration to others
Alejandrina is an inspiration to others, including her 10-year-old nephew who recently asked her if he could be “both a doctor and a writer.” She says she tells her nieces and nephews to believe in their dreams and she encourages them and other young people not to be afraid of science and math. Often, Alejandrina will tell young people, “Don’t ever think you aren’t smart enough. You are. You just have to apply yourself, work hard, and remember: not everything in life is easy.” Alejandrina hopes she will continue to be a role model to young people, especially Latinos, to believe in their dreams. She says she’s received support not only from Legacy, but from other groups like the National Association of Hispanic Nurses (NAHN), Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber and community members. She says by surrounding herself with people who believed in her, she was able to achieve her goals and find a home with Legacy—a place where she once came through the emergency room doors as a young patient.
As a nurse in the family, Alejandrina ends up being an advocate and navigator for family members, especially her mom who has diabetes, and other family members who are at high risk for diabetes. Alejandrina says she makes sure her mom is watching her diet and exercises regularly.
Alejandrina says by being a bilingual and bicultural nurse, she can serve the Latino patients in their native language and improve their satisfaction with their care. She understands the importance of promoting diversity in health care staff, as well as promoting cultural competency. “By being bicultural, you understand a particular culture, its customs and beliefs, and how to be respectful of cultural differences when working with patients,” explains Alejandrina. “For me, I know firsthand the Latino culture, however, with cultural competency training I can now better serve other cultures and communities, whether the patient is Vietnamese, African-American, Russian, has physical disabilities, or is gay or lesbian.” Alejandrina is grateful that Legacy promotes cultural competency, since she knows this is key to patient satisfaction.
She says working at Legacy Mount Hood has felt like being part of a family. “I was a very shy person in the beginning because I was in a completely new environment at the hospital. However, I found everyone to be very welcoming and eager to teach me. As time went by, I was fortunate to have managers and co-workers help me juggle my work and school schedule so I could graduate, go to nursing school, and become part of a vital obstetrical nursing staff at Legacy Mount Hood. I grew up in Gresham, and now, I feel I am meant to be here, working in the hospital, serving my community.”
Read more about Legacy's work in the community.