People from Grants, N.M. – despite its name – don’t take anything for granted.
Located 70 miles west of Albuquerque, 20 percent of families in Grants are living below the poverty line – almost double the national average. According to the U.S. Census, the median income for a household in the city is just $30,652.
So in this proud, small town of fewer than 9,000 people, when an opportunity comes along, you have to be ready to take it.
Pharmacy student Danielle Rael knows that well.
“In high school, I didn't know if going to college was even a possibility,” Rael says. “No one from either side of my family had ever gone to college. None of the cousins, aunts or uncles from my mom's or my dad's side.”
Money was always tight for Rael’s family. When she was in high school, her father passed away, leaving her mother to support her on just the wages and tips she earned from her waitressing job at a local restaurant. This also meant she spent a lot of time with her grandparents, frequently accompanying them on errands such as trips to the pharmacy, which ignited her passion for the profession.
“I thought that it was really cool how readily available a pharmacist was to us, and the knowledge they held,” she remembers. “Not only did they know about medications, but interactions and side effects, too. That's what really attracted me to want to study pharmacy.”
But deep down, Rael knew her mom couldn’t afford to send her to college, so she worked hard in high school knowing she had to get good grades and earn scholarships if she wanted to make it to college. And she did, getting into the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque as an undergraduate.
“It really meant a lot to my family. They were really proud of me, because in a way, I don’t know if they thought I could do it, either,” she admits. “But I have a lot of drive and dedication. I know what I want in life and I won’t stop until I get it.”
And what she wants is to be a pharmacist.
Juggling work and school
After four years of scholarships, student loans and working full-time while she studied as an undergrad, Rael has now completed her first year of pharmacy school, also at UNM. But because of the increased workload, Rael’s ability to balance work and school is diminished.
“As an undergrad, I worked full-time to pay the bills and avoid giant loans,” she says.
“But in pharmacy school, I can only work two or three days a week because I don't want to mess up my grades, so scholarships have definitely been a major factor for me.”
One helpful scholarship she received this year was from Walgreens, as part of the company’s Diversity Donation Scholarship program.
The program was established in 2008 to increase the enrollment of underrepresented students in schools and colleges of pharmacy. By increasing the availability of educational assistance for students from underserved areas, Walgreens’ goal is to promote diversity and inclusion within the institutional culture of pharmacy.
This year, Walgreens will award more than $850,000 to 126 schools, including the University of New Mexico, in the form of scholarships and discretionary funding to aid with diversity and inclusion programming and promotion.
Paying it forward
When Rael first decided to pursue pharmacy, she took it as an opportunity to show her family and her community what a determined and ambitious local could accomplish.
“At first, they just didn't think it could be possible for someone coming from my background. Everyone thought my goal was too optimistic, just because no one from my family had even gone to college for a simple degree, much less a doctorate,” Rael says. “But when I got my white coat and got into pharmacy school, they saw that I really stuck with this for the last four years, and they were very supportive.”
These experiences have given Rael a perspective shaped through gratitude – and a desire to pay it forward however she can.
One way she gives back is through her volunteer work with the organization, Generation Rx (learn more here), through which she visits local high schools and educates young people about the potential dangers of misusing prescription medications. Because the kids she runs these sessions for come from similar backgrounds as hers, she also takes advantage of the opportunity to present them with a potential career path that they may not have considered.
“They always laugh and say, ‘Oh, but I could never go to college. I can never do this,’” Rael says. “But when they ask questions about my background and my story, they see that it’s something that, if they put their minds to it and put the work in, they can do, too. And knowing there are companies like Walgreens that support students like them shows them it really can happen.”
As Rael looks forward to life after pharmacy school, she wants to make sure her career path reflects not only her future ambitions, but also helps her remember where she came from.
“I can definitely see myself helping others by working in a community pharmacy, just like the one that helped my grandparents,” she says. “Maybe now I can be that person for someone else’s grandparents. I can be that same example for their grandkids. You never know.”