Disproving any naysayers, LFCC associate of science graduate Meredith Dhillon (’12) has transformed herself from a 16-year-old girl living on her own, to a physician assistant specializing in mental health.
Dhillon was one of just 40 applicants out of 3,000 to get into her master’s degree program, so it’s hard to believe she was hesitant to take that first step of enrolling at LFCC. She only did so at the insistence of her husband, Neil.
And, she is sure glad she did.
In August, Dhillon graduated from the Anne Arundel Community College/University of Maryland Baltimore collaborative physician assistant program. She is now working as a psychiatric physician assistant in Virginia Beach.
She remembers LFCC fondly.
“It was the best experience ever,” Dhillon said. “The professors here, they care about learning, they care about teaching.”
She marveled at the new Student Union Building and the fresh renovations of Fairfax Hall.
But really, it is Dhillon who is a marvel. For she pulled herself out of an extremely challenging upbringing with grace and bravery.
She left home in Kansas City, Mo., at 16, and joined the U.S. Navy, where she would serve in the first Gulf War and obtain her high school diploma through correspondence courses.
But, before doing so, Dhillon, had to be emancipated from her parents. She didn’t want to follow in her mother’s footsteps, which included being on welfare and having a drinking problem. To gain emancipation, Dhillon had to track down the father she hadn’t seen in 10 years.
After a four-year enjoyable stint in the Navy, during which she got to see the world, Dhillon returned to Kansas City where she worked in a battery factory. By 2002, she’d had enough, and headed to the East Coast where she had a great aunt.
“I closed my bank account and fit everything I could in my car and drove out here to see what would happen,” Dhillon recounted. “[I was] definitely in a better place than driving a forklift and mixing battery acid.”
She met her husband, Neil, a pharmacist, and worked as an account manager for a payment transaction firm.
“He had been telling me forever to ‘go to college, you’re intelligent, you’re capable,’” Dhillon said. “I really didn’t believe in myself – college was for other people, not for me. I didn’t think I was smart enough.
“My husband actually dragged me in here to look at classes, and classes were starting the next day.”
Before she knew what had happened, Dhillon’s husband had registered and paid for her biology class at LFCC. Still, she hesitated.
Recalling her first days at LFCC, Dhillon said: “I’m coming in here, I’m terrified, I don’t know if I’m going to be smart enough or good enough, but the professors here were always willing to be helpful. They never talked down to you or made you feel small.
“After a couple semesters, I felt like I was on top of my game here.”
Dhillon was impressed at how readily available professors were at LFCC to meet with students and answer questions. She later attended a four-year university, where there were up to 2,000 people in a class and 100 students attending office hours for one professor.
“I feel like the professors here actually care more about teaching and care more about the students,” Dhillon said. “I feel like they have more level of creativity here.”
She graduated with her associate of science degree in 2012, but her favorite classes at LFCC included anthropology and honors literature. Dhillon enjoyed how in the literature class all the professors picked a theme and named what novels they thought were important. Students discussed what they took away from each book.
On a visit to campus, Dhillon visited English Professor Frost McLaughlin, telling her she remembered taking her literature class and remarking on Assistant Professor Ernie Grisdale’s chemistry class, and was overheard telling Associate Professor Frank Borleske he was the best math teacher ever.
As she was completing her bachelor’s degree in biology, Dhillon’s university advisor discouraged her from applying for graduate school, saying her community college beginnings would hold her back. She proved the advisor wrong by being accepted into the extremely competitive PA program.
“It’s crazy,” said Dhillon. “There were 3,000 applicants and 40 seats, and I got in.”
Besides a passion for animal rescue, she’s passionate about mental health, having seen her mom and other family members suffer from mental illnesses. Dhillon recognized a need for more PAs to work in the mental health field.
“I love to help people,” she shared. “I have this rescuer’s [drive] inside me. I want to save everybody and everything.”
Dhillon spent a year working in the behavioral health unit at Winchester Medical Center, which she described as a great experience.
“The patients there touched my heart,” she said.
Dhillon was impressed by the improvements made to Fairfax Hall. “I couldn’t believe how gorgeous it was when I walked around,” she said. “To see this student [union], I’m just completely blown away. It’s amazing.”
She said she recommends LFCC to “everybody.”
“You’re going to save money,” Dhillon said. “Your kids are going to be closer to home, and they’re going to have more of an ease into the college lifestyle. It builds your confidence and it gives you a foundation to get you ready to get that four-year degree.
“As far as adults getting ready to go to college, the experience was phenomenal. I feel like if I didn’t have that foundation, I wouldn’t be as successful as a student in grad school. I feel like I owe it here.”