By Amber Kennedy

Time hasn’t always been on Nicole Parham’s side.

Her working life has been shaped by moves for her husband’s service in the U.S. Coast Guard, pregnancies, a historic flood and a pandemic.

But at 46, Parham feels she has found the career she was meant to pursue. On Dec. 17, Parham will graduate from Old Dominion University with a bachelor’s degree in medical laboratory science – completed in less than two years while working for Sentara Healthcare, serving as the program’s class president and raising two daughters.

It’s a surprising path for Parham, who swore she’d never pursue a career in health care based on her experiences growing up in the Navajo Nation in New Mexico.

“Every experience that I’ve had with Indian Health Services were about a lack of resources,” she said. “If you had an appointment, you knew you’d be waiting all day.”

She never envisioned staying on the reservation. While attending the University of New Mexico, she studied media arts and theater, envisioning a future in Hollywood. But she fell in love and stayed in New Mexico, bouncing around a few jobs, including working in a casino vault.

“I loved working in the vault,” Parham said. “The best thing about it was that you didn’t have to deal with patrons, and you didn’t have to hear the casino noise all the time. It was perfect for me.”

When her husband joined the Coast Guard, Parham completed an accelerated certification program to become a teacher – a job she could take with her as they moved around the country. Soon after 9/11, they were sent to Morgan City, Louisiana.

Parham began working in residence life at Nicholls State University and decided to seek a master’s degree in education. She learned she was pregnant right as she was accepted, and her professors helped her finish the program early in time to deliver.

“That’s when I realized your learning potential is reinforced by the relationships you build in school,” Parham said. “It’s about being present and aware and engaged.”

When they relocated to Alameda, California, she started working in the base’s child development center and quickly rose through the ranks to become acting executive director. Under her leadership, the center became the first on a Coast Guard base to receive accreditation.

She poured everything she had into the job, and as a result, had little left to give. When they moved back to Louisiana, she craved a fresh start. She discovered an interest in the last field she expected – health care.

“At ODU, they don’t tell you this is just a job, they tell you this is a career and they treat you like a professional,” Parham said.

To enter a physician’s assistant program, she had to complete six months of direct patient care; the fastest path was to focus on phlebotomy. She found the lab had everything she loved about working in the vault: important tasks, contained in one room, and work she didn’t have to bring home.

She started a medical laboratory science program in 2014, but her studies were interrupted by her second pregnancy, a historic flood that ravaged Baton Rouge and the pandemic.

Parham was finally ready to try again in 2021 when her husband was offered a job in Virginia. She visited ODU’s campus and applied to the medical laboratory science (MLS) program. From the first interview with faculty, she could see the program offered the rigor she was seeking.

“At ODU, they don’t tell you this is just a job, they tell you this is a career and they treat you like a professional,” Parham said. “There’s an expectation Dr. (Barbara) Kraj and the other staff set that this is something you attain – that you earn – and it’s not given to you. It’s a little bit of pressure, but it’s also validation.”

She was impressed by Kraj’s clear expectations for students. With limited time and energy to invest, that mattered to Parham. Likewise, Kraj was struck by Parham’s determination.

“From the moment I received the very first email from her when she was in Louisiana and considering applying for the program, I knew this was a person who really knew what she wanted,” Kraj said.

Since she enrolled, Parham has balanced the demands of work, school and home. Some days started with a 4 to 8:30 a.m. shift for Sentara, followed by classes and homework from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and finally taking care of her daughters before going to bed by 8 p.m.

In the Health Sciences building, the MLS program displays its “hall of fame” touting the accomplishments of its students. “There are a lot of pictures of her there,” Kraj said.

Over four semesters at ODU, Parham successfully applied for a wide variety of scholarships, including the Commonwealth Transfusion Foundation Scholarship and a Laboratory Student Scholarship awarded by the American Society for Clinical Pathology. She is the program’s first recipient of the Pathway Retention Award, a scholarship established by the Office of Institutional Equity & Diversity to promote the persistence and matriculation of diverse students.

She ran for class president of the MLS Student Association and became the development chair for the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science-Virginia (ASCLS-VA) Student Forum. Through ASCLS-VA, she attended the Legislative Symposium in Washington, D.C., where she lobbied Virginia’s congressional representatives for better funding to support labs.

“I’m a big proponent for advocacy for the lab world,” she said. “If there’s a soapbox to stand on, I will find it, because I think it’s important for people to understand the work that we do.”

Looking to the future of the industry, Parham supplemented her studies with coursework in cybersecurity. She appreciated how ODU’s cybersecurity program is interdisciplinary, helping students from all areas of study see how an interconnected world affects their future work.

“I want to contribute to the lab world, and I know being a med tech is a way to do that, but there are things happening outside the lab that can impact our work inside the lab,” she said.

Beyond the classroom, Parham has cherished the opportunity to make close connections. She appreciated efforts made by the Office of Intercultural Relations to bring together students with Indigenous heritage, leading her to meet a fellow Navajo student and join a text group to share what she jokingly calls “native news.”

She believes she’ll carry her friendships from the MLS program well beyond ODU. “I made some really great friends in the program and, being an older student, I did not think that was going to happen,” Parham said. “But when you go through a program this rigorous, you’re going to make some lasting friendships, and those friendships really help motivate you to make this experience worth it.”

In a scholarship nomination letter, Kraj wrote of Parham, “She is an indisputable leader of her class, both loved and respected by her classmates.”

Although her time on campus was brief, Parham is proud of how she spent her hours.

“I can’t speak highly enough about ODU’s medical laboratory science program. It’s what you make of it; everything is there for you to take,” she said. “I went for everything that was available because I wanted to make sure this experience – this degree – was used to the full extent.”