As part of the 2017 BA/MD cohort, Helen Zhao is graduating this semester with a major in health medicine and human values with a concentration in biomedical science and a double minor in chemistry and psychology.
Born and raised in Albuquerque, Zhao spent her adolescence in the halls of La Cueva High School before building her prominent career as an undergraduate at UNM. Through her application for the BA/MD pipeline program UNM offers, Zhao was able to receive a full ride within the School of Medicine.
“I’ll see where (med school) takes me because I have no idea what field of medicine I want to go into. I know once I start med school that’s going to be the main thing that takes up my life so I’m just gonna let it,” Zhao said.
Though unsure, Zhao said she is leaning towards surgery. With her experience as an ASUNM senator, Zhao may consider a governmental role down the line, acknowledging the interplay between politics and medicine.
Zhao played cello for 12 years before starting college, making her no stranger to commitment and excellence. While she remained dedicated to her ventures into biomedicine, she was still able to pursue and thrive in other organizations on campus.
When asked by the Daily Lobo to name her associated involvements, Zhao humbly and humorously replied, “All of them?”
Indeed, Zhao participated in a litany of organizations, starting with her experience in the BA/MD program during her freshman year. She later joined Redondo Village Apartments Community Association as a resident adviser, which introduced her into residential life, where she currently holds a senior title.
“I already know there’s a lot of responsibility to be in the BA/MD program and then on top of that she’s an RA; on top of that, she’s the president of the Asian American Students Association (AASA); on top of that she’s an ASUNM senator. She just does it all,” colleague and fellow ASUNM senator Jacob Olaguir said.
This semester, amidst a pandemic, Zhao made her first run for ASUNM and is now successfully entering her second term.
Furthermore, upon the establishment of the AASA last year by founder Andy Bui, Zhao was tapped to be the vice president. After Bui, Zhao naturally took the reins and now sits as the president of the exponentially growing organization.
“(AASA is) probably my favorite part of being at UNM so far,” Zhao said. “It was just really fun creating it and I met a ton of new people who were super inspiring and fun to hang out with.”
Zhao furthered her service to the Asian community on and off campus as a program and communication specialist and East Asian representative for the newly established Asian Pacific American Cultural Center (APACC), alongside co-directors Olaguir and ASUNM senator Emma Hotz.
“She was really instrumental when it came to developing the programming for APACC,” Olaguir said. “She does a lot for AASA too. She does a lot of collaboration with community organizations to help improve the quality of life of not only Asian students but Asian community members in Albuquerque…She’s just a badass.”
With her time as an undergraduate coming to an end and the beginning of a new chapter dawning, Zhao reminisced on her warmest memories at UNM.
“One of my favorite memories was the Hanging of the Greens. I just dragged a couple friends along and it was supposed to be casual, but somehow it turned into an emotional and moving night,” Zhao said, as she recalled the steaming posole and the live music that illuminated that winter night.
“It was just very wholesome,” Zhao said. “It's not often that I see so many people enjoying life in one place.”
While the coronavirus pandemic placed more roadblocks in her path, Zhao still persisted and managed to graduate through and despite the additional challenges.
“Pandemic-wise, it sucks but I’ve grown to live with it. There’s only so much I can control so I just do my part, have my friends do their part,” Zhao said. “We’re all going through it together, everyones going through a similar struggle so it’s good to remember that we’re not alone in this.”
And truly, she isn’t alone. Zhao attributed her success to her support system; she offered her gratitude towards her siblings Liang and Eric as well as her cello teacher Anastasia Nellos, Women’s Resource Center counselors, the members of AASA and the BA/MD program and its advisers, and of course, her roommates.
“I definitely consider her one of my closest friends,” Sahana Ummadi said, who met Zhao in the BA/MD program as a roommate four years ago.
After the two moved from campus, Ummadi and Zhao still managed to keep in touch through their work as senators in ASUNM and as members of the APACC student board.
”She’s super hard working and really kind to everyone she meets, and (she’s) a really great leader too,” Ummadi said.
Though she says she is scared to venture into the nebulous realm of adulthood, Zhao remains excited that she has one less year of school and fondly looks back on her accomplishments, both on and off paper.
When asked to describe her graduation experience in one word, Zhao said, “Bittersweet.”
“The connections I’ve made is what I’m most proud of,” Zhao said. “Because from all those things on paper, I’ve been able to meet so many people who come from so many backgrounds, cultures and experiences.”
Gabriel Biadora is a beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @gabrielbiadora