Work in social justice pushes recent grad toward career in medicine

One could be forgiven for thinking Isabella Bullock didn’t catch a wink of sleep throughout her entire college career.

Bullock, who graduated last week, punctuating a busy time in college—one that includes obtaining her degree in Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology with honors, serving on the Student Union Assembly since her first year of college, and becoming Vice President of Student Life for three terms—with sometimes registering 10-hour days at a skilled nursing facility as she works toward a career as a physician assistant.

“I went surfing and to the gym in my free time and went out with my friends,” Bullock says. “And I promise I mostly got eight hours of sleep every night.”

But mostly, Bullock kept a busy schedule, exercising diligence to meet her academic obligations while working toward the 2,000 hours of patient care experience required to gain entry into a physician assistant program. A physician assistant is a medical professional who can diagnose illness, devise treatment plans and prescribe medication as a patient’s primary care provider, working under the supervision of a physician.

“I realized I wanted to be a physician assistant when I started my coursework at UC Santa Cruz,” Bullock says. “I saw a huge emphasis on social justice and racial justice and began to learn how socioeconomic status and race plays into one’s health.”

The physician assistant role was developed in the mid–60s to improve and expand healthcare when the United States was facing a shortage of primary care physicians.

“The PA’s role coincides with social justice by serving underserved communities,” Bullock says. “They help reach the pinnacle in healthcare, which is to provide access to high-quality healthcare to more people.”

Bullock knew from a very early age she wanted to pursue a career in medicine despite having no one in her family in the profession. Bullock dealt with chronic health problems as a child, routinely contracting pneumonia and other serious lung ailments as most of her peers recovered from what were often common colds.

“When I was 10-years-old I had pneumonia for a week and I got better, but then I relapsed and I lost about 20 pounds in a week,” Bullock says. “It was brutal.”

Bullock and her San Diego-based family were cycling through doctors in quest of answers when Bullock met a Physician Assistant who dramatically altered the course of her life.

“I met a really great PA who told me I actually had allergies that caused me to get sick,” she says.

The PA diagnosed her with asthma and prescribed basic allergy medicine which helped her end the cycle of contracting increasingly serious ailments.

“She took a more holistic view of my health in order to better understand my care,” Bullock says.

So Bullock wanted to emulate that approach to health and set about it as soon as she landed at UC Santa Cruz. But she also wanted to incorporate her passion for social justice and leadership into her college career so she became involved in student government from the outset.

That passion too was informed by her childhood. Of mixed ethnicity growing up in a suburb of San Diego, there were times when classmates could be casually or explicitly demeaning to Bullock, who is Black, Filipino, South Korean, and white.

When she arrived at UC Santa Cruz, she immediately became involved in various programs that helped her peers overcome challenging circumstances that can be tough for individuals to navigate while trying to excel academically.

“Whether it was food justice or social justice, I wanted to advocate for everything related to students’ basic needs,” she says.

Her involvement from an early stage led her to win an election to become the Vice President of Student Life (VPSL) during her sophomore year. Bullock is now finishing her third term as VPSL, the first Vice President since the creation of the Student Union Assembly to have served three consecutive terms.

Some of her accomplishments include a renovation of the SUA Food Pantry, including the implementation of garden planters so students can grow their own herbs and vegetables.

“I wanted students to be more connected to the food they ate,” she says.

She organized and hosted culturally appropriate cooking classes with various student organizations, in some cases showcasing popular recipes from Africa and Asia.

Through founding the Student Advocate’s Office during her second term, she advocated for students caught up in various disciplinary processes as a result of campus strikes or other protest activities. She helped lobby for revisions to the Student Code of Conduct and also helped raise and award $200,000 in emergency housing funds to students in need of secure housing affected by the year-long closure of campus due to the coronavirus.

Her sophomore year, she helped put on a concert featuring Sage the Gemini with the goal of fostering a greater sense of community spirit. Not everyone was on board with spending money on a concert, but Bullock says she learned as much about navigating the treacherous terrain of contemporary politics as she did about the logistics of hosting a concert.

“I was studying for my organic chemistry exam at the time,” Bullock says. “I remember studying my O-Chem textbook in between giving stage directions.”

Bullock also worked hundreds of hours as a volunteer at local healthcare facilities in and around Santa Cruz.

“I received my certificate to become a nursing assistant, and I worked at a skilled nursing facility 2 or 3 times a week where I would see anywhere from 20 to 40 patients,” Bullock says.

She would often attend classes from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., completing assignments as she went, before her work would begin at 2:30 p.m. and run as late as 11 p.m., depending on the circumstances.

“It was a ridiculous workload at times,” she said.

But the diligence has paid off. Bullock will graduate with and has accrued enough hours providing patient care to qualify for a Physician Assistant Program that she hopes to begin in the fall. Many of those hours were served during an unprecedented global pandemic that strained the abilities and mental toughness of some of the most experienced healthcare workers in the world.

“There was a time at the beginning where we were sharing personal protective equipment,” she says. “When you are sharing equipment it is neither personal or protective.”

Bullock did contract Covid last summer but was fortunate enough to bounce back in due time and resume her efforts to help others weather the very arduous storm.

Now a year later, about to accept a diploma that represents her acumen and work ethic, Bullock says she is eager to move on to the next phase of a career predicated on helping others.