The Bachelor of Science in Emergency Medical Services is an online degree program that's a little outside the box. It is designed for students who work full-time, who may have irregular hours or who may not have had success in college right out of high school. Native Tucsonan Xochitl Baca-Cruz is one of many students who checks those boxes. She is thriving in the program and well on her way to earning her degree.
"It's online, making it shift-friendly, and is created for the student to be successful in completing the program," Baca-Cruz explains. "There are plenty of resources, such as online tutoring, that are there to help you."
Baca-Cruz was always fascinated with the human body. As a child, she would wonder how everything in the body works and what happens when things don't work quite as planned. Her natural curiosity was aided by "The Magic School Bus," a children's educational television series that aired in the '90s.
"There was a human anatomy episode that opened my eyes to how we function as human beings," Baca-Cruz recalls. "I was fascinated and wanted to learn more!"
After graduating from Sunnyside High School, Baca-Cruz immediately enrolled at the University of Arizona and majored in molecular and cellular biology, with hopes to later attend medical school. However, she had a hard time adjusting to college life, and ended up dropping out after two years.
"I was very excited to be accepted into the University of Arizona and to begin my next chapter as a young adult. With that being said, I had a difficult time meeting not only the academic side of life, but also the social side of life," Baca-Cruz says. "I thought I was ready for the university life, but I was struggling with studying, it was hard for me to reach out for tutoring, and I came to realization that I should drop out."
'Getting a bachelor's has always been a goal of mine'
After leaving the university, Baca-Cruz decided to become a firefighter and paramedic, following in the footsteps of her grandfather, who had worked in the fire service, and encouraged by friends in the fire explorer program. But after 12 years as a first responder, she still had the desire to continue her education and earn a bachelor's degree. When a coworker mentioned a new program at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson, Baca-Cruz did some research.
"I found out about the program through a coworker and learned that it's online. I immediately was interested and ready to pursue it," Baca-Cruz shares. "The majority of the classes were online, which was helpful because I worked 24-hour shifts. I didn't have to attend in-person classes and worry about missing work or asking other coworkers to cover my shift. It was very convenient and helpful."
Once she learned more about the program, Baca-Cruz knew it was a great opportunity to complete her goal of earning her bachelor's degree.
"As the years went by, I couldn't stop thinking about how much I wanted to get my bachelor's and the timing of this degree couldn't have been better," Baca-Cruz remembers. "After doing my research, I finally gave in and applied."
Baca-Cruz joined the program in 2020, working full time as a firefighter and paramedic and taking classes full time as a student. She was not the only person in the program living a busy life; other students have similar work commitments, and all the professors have clinical obligations. Everyone in the program knows what it's like to balance so many responsibilities at once.
In fact, the program was designed with this understanding in mind. Joshua Gaither, MD, EMS degree program director and professor of emergency medicine, says the online nature of the program allows students to work during any time they have free.
"The classic example is, if I'm a firefighter on shift, I am having downtime right now, I can do 10 minutes of my class," Gaither explains. "If I get a call, I'll just pause the class and go out and do my job, then come back to the class an hour later. That's not a problem. We designed it to fit that need."
'There's tons of opportunities'
Baca-Cruz says that from the beginning of her time in the EMS program, everyone in the department has been very supportive. From academic adviser Shannon Scott to all the professors she has worked with, Baca-Cruz has felt welcomed and understood.
Baca-Cruz is also able to network with her professors, who are all practicing physicians. She took advantage of their knowledge and experience to explore which career path might be best for her.
"This degree is different due to the fact that the majority of the instructors are practicing physicians at Banner-University and it gives the students opportunities to explore other avenues within in the medical field," Baca-Cruz says.
Dr. Gaither finds that the faculty particularly enjoy working with the students in this program.
"It's been really fun to see our faculty engage with the students because we don't traditionally work with undergraduates," Dr. Gaither says. "It's been great to see our faculty really enjoy the students, work directly with the students and develop some amazing material to share with them."
It's through these relationships that Baca-Cruz decided upon a career path. After finishing her degree, Baca-Cruz hopes to work as a physician assistant, which can open a lot of options for her.
"A career as a physician assistant presents many opportunities for me to explore" Baca-Cruz explains. "I can go into surgery, family practice, private practice or possibly work with a medical examiner."
With the flexibility of the program, the help of the faculty and staff, and the variety of career options, Baca-Cruz will be happy to finally complete the goal of earning a bachelor's degree this month.
"I would say that I'm a success story," she says. "It was a difficult and long road, but after two years, I am proud to say it was all worth it."