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From First Responder to First-Generation Medical Student

How scholarships are helping Kathryne Mitchell, a former firefighter and paramedic, pursue her dream of becoming a doctor and giving back to her Alaska community.


In Alaska, the great outdoors is a part of everyday life. Growing up, I gardened with my mom in the summer, hiked and went four-wheeling in the White Mountains. When we visited my grandparents in the small town of Valdez, we’d fish for shrimp, halibut and salmon. In the winter, my brothers played hockey and I played volleyball.

But the things that make the interior of Alaska an amazing place to live also make it a challenge to get healthcare. If you live in a village, you might have only one doctor, and they might not even be there full-time. I was fortunate to live 30 minutes south of Fairbanks, which has a hospital, but there aren’t many specialists. When somebody needs urgent care, it can be a big problem. The nearest big hospital is in Anchorage, which means you need to take a flight or drive six-and-a-half hours — if you can. My mom had to be medevacked out a couple of years ago for an emergency procedure.

As people grow older, they begin to wonder if they can get the care they’ll need or if they’ll constantly need to fly somewhere to see a surgeon, a cardiologist or some other specialist. It’s a big driver of why people leave, and a big reason why I want to go back and be part of the solution.

"As people grow older, they begin to wonder if they can get the care they’ll need or if they’ll constantly need to fly somewhere to see a surgeon, a cardiologist or some other specialist. It’s a big driver of why people leave, and a big reason why I want to go back and be part of the solution."

A childhood dream becomes a reality

Kathryne Mitchell smiles while holding a firefighter helmet.

Kathryne Mitchell

I was a brainy kid and always imagined I’d go to college, even though I’d be the first in my family to do so. For a first-grade assignment, I wrote that I wanted to become a doctor so I could “fix bones and help people survive.” But as time went on, that dream didn’t seem realistic. I didn’t know anyone from my community who had ever gone to medical school.

However, I did have friends who’d become first responders, so as soon as I graduated from high school, I earned the certification to become one. In Alaska, we’re trained to handle both fire and medical emergencies, so one day I might be climbing to the top of a burning building to put out a fire, and on another day, I’d be out on a boat.

I loved it and thought I’d do that forever but when Dalton, my spouse, was assigned to Charleston, South Carolina, I met paramedics who were applying to medical school and doctors who had previously been paramedics. Suddenly, what seemed like a childhood fantasy became a real possibility.

When Dalton was later stationed in the Puget Sound area, I researched medical schools. I learned I could attend UW School of Medicine and train in Alaska through WWAMI, and I saw a way forward. I could become a doctor and serve my community.

Inspiring Alaska students to consider medical careers

During my first year of medical school, I was excited to co-lead with an Alaskan classmate a service-learning project called Health Education and Awareness through Role-modeling and Teaching (HEART). I’d be able to share my experience with middle and high school students who, like me, never thought that a career in medicine was possible.

But when we took on the project, COVID had just started. In the past, HEART had been focused in Anchorage, but with Zoom, we realized we could reach even more students in rural and Indigenous communities.

So we thought, “Okay, what things did we not get at that age? What can we do to change that?” Using Zoom, we were able to bring in a bunch of students from our class to show them that each person’s story coming into medical school was different and that there isn’t a single, linear path.

We were able to reach out to over 250 students and share that they can go into medicine, too, if they want. I think this is important because people who have different experiences bring different knowledge and stories to the table, which makes us better for it.

Scholarships help me care for my community

I’ve been very grateful that I’ve received scholarships like the Alaska WWAMI Endowed Scholarship. It makes a huge difference.

The debt burden is something that’s hanging over all of our heads, but thanks to scholarships, I’ll be able to choose to go into family medicine and serve a rural community, which doesn’t pay as much, and not have to worry so much about the cost of my education.

When I joined the fire service, I had mentors who taught me that being able to care for your community is a privilege, and you honor that opportunity and privilege by being the best you can be. As a firefighter, that meant heading out at 9 p.m. for drills, going outside and throwing ladders even if temperatures were 40 below, because if somebody’s house catches on fire at 40 below, we’re going to have to do this.

For me, medicine means bringing all the amazing things that I’ve learned back to Alaska so that the people who made it possible for me to go to this program can benefit from it. I want to inspire more young people to consider entering healthcare because it strengthens the community. They need to see that they’re not just on their own and that there will be people behind them, encouraging them both emotionally and financially.

I look at being a doctor as the next facet of community service that I get to do, not that I have to do. And that’s awesome.

As told to Nicole Beattie

You can train tomorrow's medical leaders

Help students like Kathryne become physicians for their rural communities by making a gift to the Alaska WWAMI Endowed Scholarship.