At 49 years old and just finishing her first year in Rush University’s physician assistant program, Vic Speedwell’s long path to Chicago and Rush wasn’t carefully mapped, but her story is a testament to what happens when you follow your heart and end up precisely where you are needed — and want to be.
Speedwell grew up in a working-class area of Stockton, California. Her father’s union job at a glass factory was often disrupted by layoffs and strikes, and her mother worked odd jobs to make ends meet.
Neither parent went college. They didn’t expect their daughter to go either.
Finding her way
Speedwell enrolled in community college a couple of times in the ‘80s. But before finishing, she embarked on a zigzagging path of jobs that ultimately led her to Chicago.
Speedwell, a former high school swimmer, gymnast and runner, became a personal trainer. For a while she measured forest canopies and promoted green roofs for environmental not-for-profits. She was a classroom instructional aide. And as a trained woodworker, she constructed harps for Lyon & Healy and exhibits for the Spertus Museum.
But when she began working as an aide in a physical therapy clinic in Chicago, something began to click.
“The physical therapists I worked with were so supportive. They included me in discussions and journal clubs,” Speedwell said. “They let me develop an injury prevention program for cyclists. I even completed certification courses.”
When Speedwell’s colleagues talked to her about becoming a physician assistant, the idea intrigued her. She returned to school, benefitting from a unique collaboration between Rush University and neighboring Malcolm X College.
Pursuing the dream
The pipeline between the schools opens doors for financially challenged students interested in nursing, physician assistant studies and other medical programs, allowing Malcolm X students with two to three years of credit to transfer to Rush University’s bachelor's in health sciences program.
For Speedwell, it was perfect timing and a perfect fit.
“After my work in the PT clinic, I was ready for a career in medicine — not an entry level job,” she said. “The Rush-Malcolm X program made everything possible for me. I found my instructors at Rush so passionate, encouraging and helpful. I felt like I’d come home.”
Rush’s commitment to service learning resonated with Speedwell and drew on her strengths. Through a not-for-profit called Dare2Tri, the former athlete and personal trainer helped people with disability become triathletes. She also cared for runners at the Chicago Marathon.
After completing her bachelor’s degree, Speedwell was determined to continue on in Rush‘s highly regarded physician assistant program. She made it through the competitive acceptance process.
Speedwell also applied for and won a competitive National Health Service Corps Scholarship, which provides her with education and living support during school in return for two years of service as a primary health care provider in a medically underserved area.
Speedwell is grateful for the scholarship and thrilled to be part of a growing field.
“PAs have great work-life balance,” she said. “We’re trained as generalists and get exposure to many areas: family practice, oncology, pediatrics and others. I go to bed every night knowing I’d need more hours in the day to do all I need to do, but it’s so stimulating. I’m completely engaged.”
Boundless opportunity ahead
Through Rush’s new Incarceration Medicine Initiative, Speedwell and other medical, nursing and physician assistant students delivered health education to people at Cook County Jail, opening her eyes to the complex continuum of health care needed by inmates. Her other interests include serving refugees settling in Chicago and caring for kids in schools or clinics in underserved neighborhoods.
“Rush is the kind of place where it’s understood that whatever you do, you’ll be engaged in the community and making the world a better place,” she said.
That sentiment fits Speedwell perfectly, and it is exactly why Rush — and Chicago — are the perfect fit.