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Mary Lee Villanueva, C'96

Matt and Meredith HayesChoosing a college for Mary Lee was not an easy decision since she grew up in a small town and was not used to large cities and big campuses. She also was looking for a college that would give her a great education, but would also foster other interests such as music. Mary Lee looked at numerous colleges before she chose to enroll at Mount Marty College.

The college was large enough to offer everything she was looking for in an education and personal growth, but not so large that she became just a face in the crowd. Her professors knew her by name and truly cared about her as a person. At Mount Marty, Mary Lee was able to enjoy and nurture her musical talents while succeeding at her major and planning for professional school. MMC was the perfect size for her. As she states, "my decision to attend MMC was a decision that continues to pay dividends."

During Mary Lee's four years at Mount Marty, she says that all of her professors influenced her life in so many positive ways. Without their guidance and instruction, she would not be where she is today including her musical endeavors such as band and the annual Spring Musical Tour. Even though composition and literature were not Mary Lee's favorite subjects, without them, she could not have written the countless research papers and personal letters for medical school and residency applications. She adds, "I need to thank all of my professors and every person at Mount Marty for being influential in my life. Without the entire campus community, and the good Lord's direction, I could not have completed my degree and moved on to the next phase of my life. I want to give thanks to everyone at Mount Marty for the experiences, the memories and my education."

As far as Mary Lee's double major in biology and chemistry, the most influential person at MMC was Jim Bowers. He was her advisor and the person responsible for guiding her through the classes she should take in order to be successful when applying for medical school. He advised her to take advanced composition and literature, even though she was not excited about more writing. Little did Mary Lee know how important writing would be for the rest of her life. She added, "Jim was an incredible professor! He was tough, but in order to succeed I needed to pass his rigorous exams." Jim recognized her potential and encouraged her to apply for medical school. Mary Lee had wanted to become a physician for many years, and he was instrumental in making her dream a reality. She was deeply saddened by Jim's recent death.

One of her most memorable experiences at Mount Marty was during interim in January, 1994. Jim Bowers and Jim Sorenson took a group of students to Florida to a research island off the gulf side of the state. It was the first major trip for Mary Lee in her young life. The group traveled via the MMC Bus, "jalopy" as many of them called it, since it broke down 3 times during their trip.

While in Florida, Mary Lee performed a research project on scallops. To this day, every time she sees scallops on a menu, she thinks of her Florida trip. Of course, the group could not go to Florida without going to Walt Disney World, where they spent a rainy day at Epcot Center. Many stories and laughs were shared by the group, some experiences still make her smile today. It was the last time an interim group went to Florida, as Mary Lee adds, "I guess we made a lasting impression."

Mary Lee graduated from MMC with a double major in Biology and Chemistry with a minor in music. After college, she took a year of graduate classes before she entered medical school in 1997. In May, 2001, she graduated from the USD School of Medicine, now the Sanford School of Medicine. Little did she know, that her hard work was only just beginning. Graduating from medical school was one of the highlights of her life. As Mary Lee was applying to medical school and residency programs, she was still asking for help from one of her MMC professors, Sister Eileen Neville. She needed some expert advice on editing her personal statement and essays required for the many applications. Sister Eileen was willing to help a former student and she truly benefited by her expert editing.

During medical school, Mary Lee had to make a decision about what kind of doctor she wanted to be. Both OB and internal medicine fascinated her, but they were completely different. After her rotations and experiences, she chose the internal medicine field because it opened up many possibilities for future training if she so desired. She also felt connected to the oncology field and thought there might be a chance of pursuing a fellowship in oncology. Mary Lee spent the next six years in Omaha at the Nebraska Medical Center, the first three years in an internal medicine residency and the last three years in an oncology and hematology fellowship. Through her education, she is board certified in Internal Medicine, Oncology, and Hematology.

Mary Lee states "I am frequently asked why I chose a career in oncology?" In her response she shares her first experience with cancer when her dad was diagnosed with a head and neck cancer when she was eleven years old. The experience was stressful to her whole family, but her dad did have a successful outcome and was able to be cured because of his extensive surgery and radiation. After that experience, Mary Lee was always intrigued and fascinated by cancer. Many of her projects and papers in high school, college, medical school, and residency dealt with the oncology field. It was one of her most demanding rotations in residency, but in it she learned the most and was most driven by her patients. Now, Mary Lee had found her true calling. Taking care of oncology patients and their families felt right, and she felt she was making a difference. Many times she has learned as much from a patient as the patient has learned from her. Mary Lee's patients have made her a better and more educated physician and that is why she plans to continue being an oncology/hematologist for the foreseeable future. The oncology/hematology field has so many opportunities for diagnosis and treatment. It is an amazing field, and things could change drastically in future years to benefit patients and their families.
As she was finishing her fellowship training in 2007, Mary Lee and husband Mike were just starting a family. They looked at and thought long and hard for where they wanted to raise a family. Yankton, a smaller community, seemed like the right choice and after an offer was made, Mary Lee accepted a position at the Yankton Medical Clinic

As Mary Lee tells the story, "it is hard to believe it has been seven years since we moved to Yankton. Since that move, my dad has passed away, and we are so fortunate that our kids, Liam, Maya, and Kelsey were able to spend precious time with him before he died. My mom still lives in Wynot, NE, so we are able to visit her frequently." And she goes on to say, "I smile every day as I pass Mount Marty on the way to the hospital and think that is where my career all started. My life has been busy, but we always enjoy going to Sunday mass at Bishop Marty Chapel and seeing the Sisters that were very influential in my life. I know MMC has had an impact on my life when, every time I am back on campus, I feel like I have returned home."

Since the Villanueva's move to Yankton, Jim Bowers had driven by their house many times since he lived just down the street. Mary Lee always waved at him, knowing that he was such a big part of her life. She thanked him after college and medical school for all his advice and help through the years, but she wishes she would have told him what a wonderful teacher and friend he was to so many. Mary Lee states, "Jim was a superb and talented professor as he touched so many lives by his teaching. He had the wisdom and insight to see in others what they themselves sometimes could not see." Mary Lee adds, "Jim was there to push me into endeavors I thought might not be attainable; again his direction was invaluable. I know I am not the only person who was touched by his teaching, his advice, and his wonderful laugh that will truly be missed."

Mount Marty College was able to prepare Mary Lee for the educational challenges of medical school and beyond. Even though MMC is a small college, she received an excellent educational base that gave her the tools she needed to succeed. Mary Lee adds, "By going to a liberal arts college, I was able to learn about being a good Christian and being a good person. One of my mottos in life is the Golden Rule: 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.' Mount Marty College was the foundation for my strong belief in treating others as I want to be treated."