Graduate Spotlight: Something Bigger Than Herself

By Jeff Sanchez | OCTOBER 26, 2022

“I did this for my daughters. I started this journey to take care of them.” When Dr. Debra Utpadel was asked what she was most proud of, she did not hesitate to mention her daughters, “The best thing to come out of all this is that I have two wonderful daughters who look up to me as a nurse with a doctorate.” Dr. Debra is working on something bigger than herself. She’s leaving a legacy for her daughters in the same way others left one for her.

Dr. Debra has benefited from the legacies of the strong women in her family. Her desire to help people was a character trait learned from her great-grandmother. “She was always helping people, and I was always with her when I was little.” Her passion for nursing came from her great aunt, a nurse herself, who introduced her to the nursing profession when she was a young teen. Ever since Dr. Debra has pursued a career as a nurse, but her journey took longer than expected.

Her entry into the healthcare profession was working as a paramedic while she applied to nursing school, but time and again, it didn’t work out. “Getting into school and paying for tuition were some of my biggest roadblocks. I had tried to get into nursing school at ACC for 3 or 4 years to get into their ADN program. I had applied to get into nursing colleges all over Texas before my kids were born.” In the early 2000s, not unlike now, nursing schools had limited spots and numerous applicants, and Debra had no luck in landing one of those coveted spots. After her second daughter was born, life as a single parent got demanding. Her EMS certification expired, and she no longer had the time for nursing school.

“I did this for my daughters. I started this journey to take care of them.”

Debra had no choice but to walk away from healthcare and her family legacy. She felt hopeless as a single mom of a newborn and a toddler. She cleaned houses to scrape out a living for her family, and she had little to no time for anything else between her job and her responsibilities as a parent. She knew an education would help her, but it felt so far out of reach. Interestingly, she received a bit of hope from an unlikely place, her gynecologist. She gave her a flyer about a program called Capital IDEA that would pay for her degree. Debra went to an information session because, why not? What did she have to lose?

A funny thing about legacies, they often hinge on small moments that make a lasting impression. That’s exactly how Debra remembers her CareerUp information session. “(Career Navigator) Sister Ane saw me and came towards me. I think she saw that I was in great distress, and she told me that this wasn’t the end and I wasn’t going to be on welfare forever, and she talked me into the program. It was Sister Ane who convinced me to go to school. I wasn’t going to go back. I was done.” Sister Ane encouraged Debra to do this for herself and her daughters. And just like that, she was back to building on her family legacy. Debra applied and got accepted into the program. Now came the hard part, going to school.

Walking into a classroom as a student in her thirties was a bit intimidating. “Back then, adult learners weren’t the thing. I was the oldest person in my LVN class.” But as time went on, the helping nature that was passed down from her great-grandmother came out, and soon Debra would find herself guiding some of her classmates. “I was able to help the people younger than me. They looked up to me. There was quite a number who were single moms. They were struggling to get through classes because they didn’t realize what was out there to help them.”

“(Career Navigator) Sister Ane saw me and came towards me. I think she saw that I was in great distress, and she told me that this wasn’t the end, and I wasn’t going to be on welfare forever, and she talked me into the program.”

Yet, as helpful as she was to others, it didn’t make going to school any easier for Debra. “I had my Career Navigator on speed dial. Every time it got tough, I called Maria Mora to tell her that this was too tough and hard. She held my hand through the whole thing and kept telling me I could do it.” As a single parent, she not only had to figure out childcare while she was in classes and, subsequently, her clinicals, but she also had to figure out when to study. Fortunately, her mom could help with some childcare responsibilities, but she lived across town, “Sometimes I had to drop off my kids at 5 a.m. to make clinicals. I did that for about 18 months through my program. It was really difficult to put in the time to study. Sometimes I wouldn’t go to bed until 2 a.m. and wake up 2 hours later to study more.” Capital IDEA helped by providing resources to supplement daycare, and eventually, the long days and sleepless nights culminated in Debra earning her Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN). She continued the legacy of her great aunt, who worked as a nurse, but was also creating her own, as she became the first female in her family to get a degree.

Overcoming her obstacles to getting her ADN gave Debra the confidence to do more. Debra went on to earn her Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing (BSN), her Master’s degree, and a Doctorate in Nurse Practice and is now a Board Certified Adult Geriatric Primary Care Nurse Practitioner. Her career took her from the Austin area to Connecticut, Arkansas, and finally, Nacogdoches, Texas, where she is the Senior Nurse Practitioner at East Texas Community Health Services, helping people who need it the most. Her clinic provides medications at little to no cost for an immigrant population with little to no money to pay for healthcare. Her patients are more than bodies she patches up, they’re people she cares for, even to the point of walking them through the grocery store to teach them what foods to buy for their diabetic needs, leaving a legacy of love with a population that is so often forgotten.

“Sometimes, I had to drop off my kids at 5 a.m. to make clinicals. I did that for about 18 months through my program. It was really difficult to put in the time to study. Sometimes I wouldn’t go to bed until 2 a.m. and wake up 2 hours later to study more.”

Yet, the most important legacy for Debra will always be the one she has passed on to her daughters. While Dr. Debra was earning degrees and working as a nurse in various locations, she raised two strong, independent women, of whom she is very proud. “They love school. It gave them the sense that they needed to do something with their lives. They know they need to go to school to become somebody so they can take care of themselves.” Her youngest, Roxanne, saved up her money as a teenager and purchased her first house at 18, and now is going to nursing school to pursue her BSN, following in her mother’s footsteps. Her oldest, Samantha, was diagnosed with autism as a teenager, and she was told she would never be able to live alone and care for herself. “When the doctors told her this, she said, ‘Yeah, No.’” Today, at 24, she is pursuing a degree in Neuropsychology and living very comfortably on her own.

As Dr. Debra nears retirement, she’s not done adding to her legacy. She still teaches the new nurse practitioners at her clinic, and “I’m really considering going back to school and getting a Post Master’s certification in Psych and Mental Health. I really like to travel, and if I’m a psych mental health nurse, I can do that from anywhere.” Yet even with all her accomplishments, Dr. Debra remembers that she benefited from the many people who helped shape her, encourage her, push her, and uplift her. And to prospective students, she offers this advice: “Capital IDEA is a family. There’s always somebody there that you can talk it through and figure it out. You’re not on your own. You just have to take that first step. Sometimes just knowing you belong to something bigger than yourself will encourage you to try and do it.”

“Capital IDEA is a family. There’s always somebody there that you can talk it through and figure it out. You’re not on your own. You just have to take that first step. Sometimes just knowing you belong to something bigger than yourself will encourage you to try and do it.”

Just like Dr. Debra, you can create a legacy that you and your loved ones will be proud of. And we’ll be with you every step of the way. You can email our team at outreach@capitalidea.org, or sign up for an information session: LEARN MORE »

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