Crystal Dickson, a 23-year-old second year student at the UNLV School of Medicine, remembers…
How, as a little girl, she’d often be left alone by her parents at night, during the day... how, because of their unpredictable behavior, she’d hide in a room or in a closet when they were home... how her parents got repeatedly arrested for using methamphetamine... how she hated visiting her dad in prison... how other students and even adults, assumed she could never amount to anything because of what her parents had done.
The more you talk with this honors graduate of Advanced Technologies Academy in Las Vegas —
she also graduated with honors from UCLA in Los Angeles —
the more you realize just how wrong it is to assume family background dictates a child’s future.
“I remember in high school when a social worker came... she was talking to me and saw my grade point... It was above 4.0. There was a look of shock on her face. I felt kind of mad. It shouldn’t have been shocking. That attitude is held, unfortunately, by a lot of people. A lot of people assume things that they shouldn’t… my sister didn’t do drugs either... when you have parents like mine, people who are older and just students treat you differently and you feel that. A lot of people thought that because my parents had problems with addiction, I would as well.”
Dickson credits her grandmother, an accountant who became her guardian in elementary school, with bringing stability to her life. “She has always encouraged me.”
It wasn’t until high school that Dickson thought she could make a future for herself. “Because of my parents, people don’t expect much from you and you start to feel the same way. But then I noticed if I studied, I could do well in class... People started reacting to me differently... I realized I had the ability to determine my future... In high school I wanted to have a career in public health or research because I wanted to have a job where I could have a positive influence on people’s lives. But becoming a doctor never seemed attainable.”
Her mindset changed after she won scholarships to attend UCLA. There, she majored in neuroscience after her mother was in a car accident and suffered a traumatic brain injury. “In college, my confidence in myself grew and I started volunteering at a neurology clinic. It was while volunteering… taking vitals and talking to patients that I decided that I wanted to become a doctor... I still haven’t decided on a speciality, though.”
During college, she also volunteered with children who came from backgrounds similar to hers. “I spent a lot of time volunteering with foster youth (three years) because I wanted children born into circumstances like the one I was born into to know that there was hope and that they do have the ability to improve their futures.”
Dickson now lives with her grandma. So does her mother and a brother. “My mother has been clean since I was a sophomore in high school.... she did have to get her teeth removed because of what methamphetamine did to her teeth... My dad is in prison. He goes because of what he does to get money for drugs. Once it was forgery... I haven’t talked to him in a long time. I told him the last time he got out of prison that I wouldn’t talk to him again if he went back... I used to hate going to the prison. I had negative experiences there.”
It isn’t unusual to see Dickson carrying two bags of heavy books —
one on her back and one on her arm —
into the medical school library or virtual anatomy lab. She studies either in the library or a classroom. She is passionate about what she believes she can do through medicine to help others, particularly the underserved. That sincere desire —
one that shows “a fire in the belly,” according to Dr. Sam Parrish, admissions director for the medical school —
played a key role in her winning admission. Dickson wants to help change the medical care system in the U.S.
“I do not believe that one’s socioeconomic status should determine their health outcomes, but that is something that is very prominent here. There are so many people that don’t have insurance and can’t afford to see a doctor until it’s an emergency... I have chosen to become a doctor because there’s something enormously special about being able to have a direct influence on someone’s life and help inspire them to lead healthier, happier lives.”