Valerie Cordero, MD, Minority Medical Education Program, 1996

Valerie Cordero, a Native American, planned to have a career in music. After junior college, she left her hometown of Riverton, Wyo., for Las Vegas and life as a professional saxophonist. "I don't think I ever thought consciously about being a doctor," she says. "Everyone always encouraged me in music because I was good at it."

More than a decade and a few twists and turns later, Valerie Cordero did, indeed, become a physician and in 2005 was practicing family medicine for a nonprofit health care system in the Seattle area. By 2011, she had returned to Wyoming and was practicing family medicine in the rural community of Powell under her married name, Valerie Lengfelder, MD.

One important step along her circuitous route was participation in a summer academic enrichment program that helped minority college students prepare to apply for medical school admission. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded the program, called the Minority Medical Education Program.

Without that experience, "I don't think I would have gotten in [medical school], at least not on my first try," says Cordero, whose mother, a Shoshone, is a member of the Wind River Reservation in north-central Wyoming. The summer increased not just her knowledge but also her self confidence, Cordero says. "I felt so much more prepared when I left."

Looking back at her childhood, Cordero now sees what may have been signs of latent interest in becoming a physician. She remembers, for example, that when she and her little friends played make-believe, she always wanted to be the doctor. How many children have done that? But for Cordero, a Native American growing up in a small Wyoming town, there was little nourishment of any such dreams.

Her mother, a pharmacy technician, and her stepfather, a natural gas driller from a large Mexican-American family, were loving and encouraging, but they themselves had not gone to college and were unfamiliar with higher education and the professional world.

Outside the home, role models who might encourage a would-be physician were scarce as well. Cordero cannot recall ever meeting a Native American physician when she was growing up. Her family got its medical care from the Indian Health Service, where all the physicians were White, she says. "Maybe that's part of the reason I never thought about being a doctor."

Once in Las Vegas, Cordero soon tired of the life style she found there. The saxophone went back into its case, and its owner became assistant manager of the Las Vegas outlet for a national weight-reduction products company. She also married and gave birth to a daughter, Ciera.

The marriage did not work out, and in 1991 Cordero and 18-month-old Ciera moved back to Riverton, Wyo. Two years later, taking her first step into the health care field, Cordero enrolled in a surgical assistant program at Central Wyoming College, a two-year school in Riverton. Few of the credits she earned earlier in junior college—all in the humanities—transferred. She was starting over.

Once again, however, she realized this was not what she wanted. What she wanted was to know more about the human body and how it all worked—more than she was learning as a surgical assistant student.

At the end of her first semester, Cordero told her school adviser that she secretly always wanted to be a doctor. "Why don't you go for it?" was the reply. Twenty-eight years old and a single mother, Cordero had thought it was too late to make another such sweeping turn. But the adviser's encouraging response was an epiphany, Cordero says. From that moment on, she knew she would become a doctor.

After two years at Central Wyoming, Cordero transferred to the University of Wyoming in Laramie to complete her bachelor's degree with a major in zoology and physiology. In her first year there, she saw a notice about a summer enrichment program at the University of Washington School of Medicine for pre-medical minority college students. The University of Wyoming has no medical school, and Cordero recognized an opportunity to get extra help. In the summer of 1996—between her junior and senior years —she left Ciera with family in Riverton and set off for Seattle.

"I learned so much I never would have learned at the University of Wyoming," Cordero says, looking back on those six weeks. In addition to courses in chemistry and other sciences, she got instruction in communications skills and personal finance management, took mock Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) exams and learned about different medical specialties. Also, once a week she shadowed a physician practicing in the community—a role that as a doctor she now plays for current program participants.

Just being in a medically oriented academic environment with people from a wide variety of backgrounds was valuable, Cordero says. "For me, it was like Wow —there are some Native Americans who are doctors."

Another high point was a writing class that helped her improve the autobiographical essay required of medical school applicants. "The gal who was teaching it took a red pencil and pretty much X'ed out the whole thing," she says of her first attempt.

The six weeks were free—and fun. Cordero and the approximately 100 other participants lived together on campus and formed a committee, which she was on, that planned social activities.

Because of her positive summer experience and especially the people she met—"They made me feel like a member of the family"—Cordero returned to the University of Washington as a regular medical student, this time bringing Ciera with her. In 2002 she earned her MD and three years later, at age 40, completed her residency in family medicine.

That's a long way from Vegas and the saxophone, which, by the way, is still around but rarely out of its case. "I played at the Christmas party at work. That's all you can get me to do," the doctor says.