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Meet the Commencement 2023 student speaker who’s forging her own path toward medical school
profile image of Nicole Felix-Tovar

Nicole Felix-Tovar is the student speaker at Emory University’s 2023 Commencement ceremony. A first-generation student, she’s found fulfillment and growth across multiple areas of campus.

— Kay Hinton, Emory Photo/Video

The first time Nicole Felix-Tovar stepped on Emory’s campus, she was a rising high school senior participating in the Emory Winship Summer Scholars Research program. Just a dozen students are chosen for the six-week internship focused on cancer research and one-on-one work with a Winship physician or lab-based researcher.

“I knew by the end of those six weeks that this is where I wanted to grow and become my future self. A physician, a researcher, all of these identities that I might find and take on in the future, I knew I wanted to do it at Emory,” she says. “What I really appreciated was that feeling of growth and I was sure that Emory could provide me with more of that feeling.”

Now, Felix-Tovar is closing her undergraduate experience as the 2023 Commencement student speaker.

Finding her own path

When Felix-Tovar arrived as a first-year student, she knew she wanted to become a physician but wasn’t sure how she’d get there.

“One thing I really appreciate about Emory is how it constantly exposes me to many different perspectives and ways of getting to a destination,” she says.

That exposure is how she landed on majors in anthropology and human biology and human health, on the pre-med track.

After participating in the Winship program, Felix-Tovar discovered that she had a stronger affinity towards "dry lab" clinical research rather than the "wet lab" research that she had previously associated with medicine. Additionally, during her first year, she did not feel a strong connection to the introductory biology and chemistry courses.

“Those first two semesters I was worried about my future, but I persevered in the STEM courses and really quickly realized that there were so many different ways to engage in research within medicine and still be pre-med,” Felix-Tovar recalls. “Taking classes in my second year, I knew that human health, along with anthropology and human biology, offered a holistic and humanistic way of viewing health and medicine. That’s what drew me to those departments, revitalized my goal of becoming a physician and gave me a newfound sense of purpose.”

Closer to graduation, a new path again opened up before her.

“I knew I’d take a gap year to strengthen my medical school applications, but wasn’t planning on pursuing a master’s degree,” Felix-Tovar says.

That changed when she enrolled in American Healthcare Ethics, a class where she “felt totally engaged” in thinking about ethical and moral dilemmas in clinical settings. She enrolled in the 4+1 MA Bioethics program, which began in the fall of her senior year. Felix-Tovar will complete her master’s degree in spring 2024.

Searching for fulfillment and growth

Beyond academics, Felix-Tovar covers a lot of ground, whether it’s in an SUV packed with medical bags and sirens or walking around campus or the halls of a doctor’s office.

As an EMT with Emory Emergency Medical Services (EEMS), she volunteers for at least two 12-hour shifts each month, responding to calls across campus and the surrounding area.

“It’s been an incredible way to learn and actually be part of the patient-provider dynamic,” Felix-Tovar says. “The most meaningful part has been the friendships I’ve made with people I didn’t know before but who I’m connected to by this love of health care.”

She’s also involved with Emory Volunteer Medical Interpretation Services. As a daughter of Colombian and Ecuadorian immigrants, Felix-Tovar often bridged language barriers in medical settings. At Emory, she became certified in medical interpretation, which fulfills her in a way she says nothing else does.

But she’s not only focused on the medical world.

“The theme throughout everything I’ve done is my search for fulfillment and growth,” she says.

Part of her own fulfillment has come from the 1915 Scholars Program, which aims to empower, support and advocate for first-generation and/or limited income students at Emory. “Feeling that sense of support and like someone has my back has been such a relief,” she says of her program mentors.

She helps other students find fulfillment through Emory Student Involvement, Leadership and Transitions, where she works as a STEER team member. Through that, she helps students get involved at Emory and rethink what being involved means.

Looking to the future

Felix-Tovar will return to Emory’s campus this summer to continue working toward her master’s degree in bioethics, and she plans to focus her thesis on maternal and reproductive health. “I don’t know the specifics yet, but I’m really curious and excited to find out,” she says.

She’s still got her eye on becoming a physician but is pursuing her own path to that destination — and is in no rush.

Instead, she hopes to take a few additional years to do research in Colombia, perhaps building on her summer 2022 project with the Halle Institute for Global Research, as well as continued clinical experience and time with family who have supported her throughout her life.

Honored and humbled to be selected as this year’s student speaker, Felix-Tovar has a message for her fellow graduates as they close this chapter of their lives.

“Let yourself be yourself and know that you have intrinsic worth and value outside of any accomplishment or external form of validation,” she says. “Try your very hardest to release any self-doubt you may have in your capabilities and let go of any ideas of what perfect might be.”

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