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From poverty to pre-med

As a child of a single mom in the military, Willow Wallace grew up poor and moved around a lot. At age 16, after her mother returned from Iraq suffering from post-traumatic stress, Willow ventured out on her own, supporting herself with a full-time job at Jamba Juice in Seattle. College, she says, “wasn’t on my radar.”

Then she took a test to join the U.S. Navy, and scored in the 99th percentile. “That made me realized that I could do this, that I could succeed,” she says. Instead of enlisting, however, she enrolled at Portland State. Now, with help from scholarships, she is set to graduate this spring with a degree in biology, and a year from now with a second degree in public health.

Her goal: to become a medical doctor and researcher specializing in infectious diseases.

“As a kid who came up in poverty, I saw a lot of the burden disease places on families,” Wallace says. “Now I’m learning it’s such a complex topic. So many other factors go into disease and disease prevention.”

Wallace is set to be among the first to graduate from the new joint School of Public Health, established last year by Oregon Health & Science University and PSU. She plans to continue her studies at OHSU.

David Bangsberg, dean of the new school, says Wallace is the type of student they had in mind when planning the collaboration. One of the goals of the School of Public Health is to educate underrepresented and marginalized students so they can return to improve lives in the communities they came from.

“Being a great doctor requires deep empathy for and understanding of suffering,” Bangsberg says. “Being a great leader requires patient and steady tenacity in a difficult and complex situation. Willow has these traits in spades.”

At Portland State University, we believe knowledge works best when it serves the community.