Neonatal Nurse Grace Zhang  wears a Neonatal sweatshirt and RN hospital badge

Being a First-Generation Professional in Healthcare and Finding Your Right Path 

by Elaine Fernandez with Grace Zhang

Making Waves Education Foundation » Resources » Being a First-Generation Professional in Healthcare and Finding Your Right Path 

What’s it like going into the field of nursing and becoming a healthcare professional? 

I sat down with Grace Zhang, a Wave-Maker alumni and graduate of San Francisco State University who majored in nursing, to find out what going into the nursing field is really like along with her journey to becoming a health care professional.  

What drove you to go into the nursing field? 

Grace Zhang: I had some time in college where I took care of my grandfather and my great aunt. They were both sick and I was exposed to hospital healthcare settings throughout San Francisco because of this. I got to talk to nurses and sonographers and tried to figure out what each person did in their roles. Then, I had a family member in her young 30s who was diagnosed with colon cancer and her mom and sister reached out to me because they knew that I was interested in healthcare and taking care of other people, so I had the opportunity to take care of her during night shifts by giving her medication. I didn’t have a license to be a nurse at the time and I was taking care of so many of my family members while I was in college that I really felt like I had that first-hand experience that ultimately pushed me to realize that I can see myself in that role. 

Were there any difficulties or challenges you had to face while on your journey into becoming a nurse? 

Grace Zhang: I feel like some of the difficulties to become a nurse relate to the fact that I felt like throughout my younger years I didn’t have too much exposure to family members who were already in healthcare. I didn’t have people guiding me along the way, and I think that was a challenge because after I graduated college, I had to figure out my next steps all on my own. However, I was able to be proactive and reach out to people that I knew, like my friends who knew nurses and doing informational interviews with them and other healthcare fields. Being a first-generation student and my family not having the ability to be those role models for me in this field was a challenge. 

What would you say is one of the most rewarding moments as a nurse? 

Grace Zhang: I love interacting with the families and making them feel supported and warm. Capturing those moments to really talk to families and understand what’s going on with them or just making them feel comfortable and supported. Having those patients say things like ‘hey, you’re that nurse that really makes the time to make me feel supported’ or ‘I can really tell that you care.’ Those moments make me proud to say that I’m in the healthcare field and that I chose the right profession for me. 

What are some common misconceptions about the nursing field that you believe should be addressed? 

Grace Zhang: One of the misconceptions pertains directly to my role. For example, I am a NICU nurse, so I work with babies, and one misconception is that people think I just feed and hold babies all day, but it’s not the case. During my time as a nurse, I feel like I have so much to do, whether it’s talking to doctors, figuring out how to navigate difficult family situations, and more. Being a nurse is so much more than the superficial idea of what people think it is like and that it’s nice all the time. Additionally, as a nurse you deal with a lot of deaths and sadness that you don’t really think about in the world of taking care of babies, but it’s definitely a hard part of the job that I think not enough people realize.  

What are some tips or advice you have for current and future Wave-Makers in relation to nursing, and in general? 

Grace Zhang: For nursing, figure out what you like and whether nursing is right for you. I took a longer journey than many other people, but I feel like that time was worth it. I took the time to navigate what the best route for me was between nursing, being a doctor, or all these different options in healthcare.  

Additionally, when you’re taking all those classes to get into nursing school, I recommend finding opportunities to do nurse externships or partnerships or volunteering in the unit that you’re interested in. Doing this looks amazing on your resume and during your interviews as you can talk about your experience with being in the unit.  

In general, in your career development, be open to the possibility of changing your path. I think that there’s a lot of pressure on young people nowadays to really choose something and then they feel that if they’re stuck with it if they pick a certain major or path. It’s okay to change your major and it’s okay to graduate with a certain major and then realize after college that you do not want to do that.  

You can go a path that doesn’t even require a degree. I think the traditional mindset of having to follow down the path of one thing that you pick is not good. I have met so many nurses who have chosen nursing as a second career and they have so much life experience and knowledge to offer that I think everything accumulated and combined really makes for a well-rounded person, worker, and life experience. 

How has Making Waves Education Foundation played a role in your life? 

Grace Zhang: Making Waves played such a major role in my life during college because I felt like I had the support that I needed when I went off to somewhere far away. I felt like the staff members that I talked to each month were really engaged and really cared about my wellbeing.  

Grace Zhang with a stethoscope and her white coat

Simply having those regular check-ins made me feel supported because I have parents who care, but don’t have the experience of going to college or knowing what a college experience entails. It really felt like I had a team of people behind me in the Bay Area who really cared and were there for me.  

When I first graduated and I didn’t know what part of healthcare I wanted to do, my coach at the time offered me informational interviews and he helped connect me to people. I felt like I could get good insights and make those connections with people in my community, so Making Waves played a big role in my life. 

I know in Making Waves events we always ended off with appreciation. I want to close by appreciating the organization and staff members because of how much they impacted my life. I really appreciate all the work that Making Waves does for its community and for all the students in the Bay Area. 


At Making Waves, we are committed to educational equity. Making Waves Education Foundation is a Bay Area nonprofit that supports Making Waves Academy – a public charter school with more than 1,100 5th through 12th grade students – and leads college and career programming with more than 430 college students.​

Knowing the opportunities that come with a college degree, we partner with historically underrepresented and underserved students to help make college affordable and graduation attainable. Centering the journeys of our students, our personalized approach includes college and career coaching, scholarships, and financial planning.​

Our alumni network includes more than 730 college graduates, who earn their degrees and land jobs at more than twice the rate of their first-generation, low-income peers, with 85% graduating debt-free.

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