Victoria Whitehead had plenty of reasons to give up on her college education. Amid financial and life challenges, at times it felt like she wasn’t making any progress toward her dream of becoming a doctor. It took a decade and ample support and dedication, but she completed her bachelor’s degree in technical communication at Mercer University in December 2021.
“I think God was sending little guardian angels, continuing to encourage me and keep me going. It was something I really wanted,” she said. “Attending Mercer was my very first grown-up decision. I was determined and stubborn. I wanted to finish.”
As a child, Whitehead dreamed of attending Mercer. Coming to the Macon area frequently with her mother, she marveled at the beauty of the campus and declared that’s where she wanted to go to college. Later as a high-schooler, Mercer’s offering of a biomedical engineering major solidified her choice. Fascinated by anatomy and how the body works, she wanted to be a doctor, so she could help people.
“When I graduated high school and started college, I had this perfect plan laid out for my life, and then life happened,” Whitehead said. “I kind of had to adjust my plan, and things changed.”
With unforeseen obstacles thrown her way, she had to take a break from Mercer after one semester to work full time. While working at Kroger, she met and had a long conversation with Dr. Kay Shurden, a retired professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences in Mercer’s School of Medicine.
Dr. Shurden said she asked Whitehead a question she often poses to young people when she has an inkling they may not be following their passion: “Is this your dream job?” Whitehead answered no and said she wanted to be a doctor, and they discussed what was keeping her from that goal.
That conversation ultimately led Whitehead to restart her studies at Mercer, with guidance and support from the student success and financial planning offices as well as her advisers and professors. She also gained a lifelong mentor and friend in Dr. Shurden.
Over the next several years, Whitehead alternated between periods of work and school. She’d commute from Hawkinsville every day to take a full load of courses in Macon, while also working at Kroger. Then, she’d take a break from classes to focus on her bills, sometimes holding four jobs at a time. One of her positions was as a scribe — transcribing patient information during clinical visits — at Coliseum Medical Centers (now Piedmont Macon Medical Center), which reinforced her desire to become a doctor.
“Victoria’s academic journey is particularly remarkable because of her persistence,” said Dr. Jennifer Goode, Whitehead’s professor and adviser in the Department of Technical Communication. “Life dealt her many challenges that could have derailed her degree program, but Victoria stuck with it, and she kept coming back, time after time. Victoria worked her way through the program, step by step, until she was able to realize her ultimate goal: graduation. It was a tremendous amount of work and extra effort on her part, but her tenacity really shined through in the end.”
“I felt like I was able to find a major that was a much better first for my interests and what I want to do going forward,” she said. “I still want to do something in medicine, but I feel like my major in technical communication is a lot more diverse. All the skills I’ve learned are going to make me a better person overall when it comes to communication and reaching out to people.”
She completed her degree in December 2021 and participated in commencement in May. Whitehead said her educational journey at Mercer was a great experience, and she has no regrets. Now, she has set her sights on medical school.
“I’m proud of Victoria because she’s such a unique person, but I’m proud of Mercer for helping her realize her dream,” Dr. Shurden said. “She’s constantly got her goal in mind to get into medical school. When Mercer School of Medicine was started, it was with the idea that it would put doctors in underserved areas of Georgia. They weren’t necessarily going to be specialists in some high-powered setting, but they had a love for medicine in a rural setting, and Victoria has that. She has the love and the determination and the desire to go back and work in the community.”
Whitehead is currently working as a clinical technician in the emergency room at Atrium Health Navicent while completing prerequisite science courses. She hopes to apply for medical school in 2024. Her long-term goal is to be a physician in a rural, underserved area. She has a passion for public health and wants to focus on health education, especially in relation to disease management.
“I really just want to better my community, but I don’t want to stop with my community,” she said. “I want to expand to other rural communities. In rural areas, everyone is family, and you always want the best for your family, no matter what. I want the best for my family.
“I want people to have a better life, holistically, especially in the rural community where you don’t have as many opportunities, and the most important thing is your health.”
Whitehead said she wants to help educate people on preventative measures they can take for their health, and she’d also like to design cheaper medical equipment to allow for more affordable testing and less financial burden for patients.
“She’s such a delightful human being,” said Dr. Jay Black, Schumann Endowed Professor and Chair of the Department of Journalism and Media Studies. “She’s working so hard, but she’s still so kind and so thoughtful. She’s a person who can get things done and still be true to her moral self. She’s somebody who’s going to go places. She’s got that drive. She’s got that talent. With a little bit of luck, she’s going to go a long way.”