By Sade Teel
On May 7, Erika Nielsen walked the commencement stage at Valencia College after earning her associate degree from Valencia College, weeks before she will earn her high school diploma from the Osceola County School for the Arts.
Erika Nielsen may be young, but at 15 years old, she has an appetite beyond her years.
Erika has always been hungry to learn more, especially when it came to science. Thanks to her father, who encouraged her to push her boundaries, Erika’s unquenchable thirst for education continues to grow.
Erika started enrolling in college courses in the seventh grade through Florida Virtual School. She completed college algebra 1 and then during the summer of seventh grade, she completed college algebra 2 and geometry within the same semester. While Erika was in her eighth-grade year, Covid-19 impacted her courses and she became a fully online, full-time, Valencia College student — all while still in middle school.
“I found the courses easy so I always asked what the next step was, what more can I do,” said Erika.
Erika said she found the idea of challenging herself “interesting” and “fun.”
“It was still very hard, but I knew what I was working towards and who I was working for,” said Erika, who was inspired by her father, who earned his doctoral degree in nuclear physics from France at the age of 19.
“My dad is definitely proud,” said Erika. “He always knew I had more potential.”
Erika Nielsen and her father at the Valencia College Spring 2023 commencement.
Originally from California, Erika said her father noticed her ability to exceed standards when she was in the second grade.
“In second grade, I was able to retain information at the sixth-grade level. I knew I needed to catch up with the knowledge that I could truly retain. I was hungry for more,” said Erika.
Erika hopes to pursue a career as a robotic cardiac surgeon – a career choice that she says started when she began taking care of her father.
Her father had a cyst removed when she was around 10 years old, and Erika said she was in the surgery room.
Erika said during the procedure, the nurse walked in and said, “You’re actually the first person out of kids or adults who have not fainted. Have you ever thought about working in the medical field?”
Erika, full of excitement, replied, “That’s actually a really good idea.”
Later, when her father underwent hip replacement surgery, Erika was his caretaker.
“I was his nurse; I was doing homecare and I took care of his bandages,” said Erika. “I gained experience through taking care of him.”
A few years later, Erika received a life-changing call. Her father telephoned her from his doctor’s office, where he’d been told that he could have a heart attack if he did not undergo surgery.
“My dad called me and asked for my advice of what the success rate is, procedure steps and more,” said Erika. “I did my research and we agreed surgery was needed. That is when I found my fascination for the heart.”
He immediately underwent transvenous implantations, during which a pacemaker was inserted and attached to his heart.
During the surgery, Erika said an AdventHealth executive asked her if she would ever be interested in working with robotics, because he was struck by her interest in the heart procedure her father underwent.
“My passion just heightened, and I really loved the idea of being a robotic surgeon,” said Erika.
Erika is thankful for the support of her professors, who never treated her like a 15-year-old, but like an everyday college student.
“I was worried they would just treat me like a kid, but they were all very supportive,” said Erika.
Erika turns 16 in July and plans to pursue her bachelor’s degree in biology. She has already been accepted into Florida Southern College, the University of Oregon, and Stetson University. However, Erika said she is still weighing her options.
After earning her bachelor’s degree, Erika plans to attend medical school and apply for fellowships.
As a child, Erika said she always felt like an outsider because she wanted to learn more and knew she could do more. She urges others to pursue their passions and never let anything hold them back.
“If you think you can do more, JUST GO FOR IT,” said Erika. “When you’re hungry for something, you will find a way.”
Source: Sade Teel, Valencia College