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At age 5, Bianca de Leon emigrated from the Philippines to start a new life with her family in the United States. Seventeen years later, she graduated from Penn State with a B.S.N. degree and embarked on a career in military nursing.

Along the way, she encountered more than the average American’s share of hardships, which she overcame thanks to perseverance and a strong support system.

“My parents wanted us to grow up in the States because they knew we would have better opportunities here,” she remembered. “At first, it was just my dad, my two older siblings, and myself. We briefly moved in with my aunt and uncle, plus their four kids and my grandma. After that, we moved five more times before I graduated from high school. “

It wasn’t until she turned 13 that Bianca’s mother and younger brother were approved to join them in the United States. “My dad became a citizen in 2004 and petitioned for them to come here,” she said. “Up to then I had only been able to talk to them through a computer screen. It was surreal to be reunited with them after so many years.”

But life didn’t become easier. On Bianca’s 15th birthday, she applied for her first job. She worked all through high school while taking AP classes and participating in sports, scholastic clubs, and other extracurricular activities.

“Many times I would come home after a midnight shift at Sonic and see that everyone was already asleep and my mom had left me food on the table,” she said. “After eating I’d usually do my AP Calculus homework, but sometimes I was so tired I just couldn’t. Next morning I’d wake up tired, go to school tired, was unable to pay attention in class because I was tired, then go to work tired. At age 17 I thought this was all I’d ever feel.”

Though challenging, Bianca’s less-than-ideal circumstances helped solidify her life plans. “For one class, I mentored an elementary school student who had behavioral issues, maybe problems at home,” she said. “And I could see myself as that little kid. I was frustrated and angry at things I couldn’t change.” She also spent part of high school working at a retirement home, where the nursing staff worked hard to take care of the many residents. “I realized I wanted a profession where I could interact with people and help make changes to improve their lives.”

In addition, Bianca’s father had open-heart surgery at age 50. Hospitalized for weeks, he missed his son’s high school graduation. “It was so hard to see him that sick and I knew I wanted to be there for him when I was older,” she said.

Inspired by her older brother, Bianca decided to apply for an ROTC scholarship. “I became interested because they had nursing scholarships,” she said. “At the time I wasn’t thinking that I wanted to pursue a military career. I knew that I needed to go to nursing school and this was a way that I would be able to do it.” She received a Navy ROTC scholarship at Penn State and was accepted into the four-year bachelor’s degree program in Nursing.

Thanks in part to the financial support she received from ROTC and a Fran Soistman Trustee Scholarship, Bianca graduated in spring 2017 as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps. By July, she had passed her NCLEX exam and set out for her first duty station at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital in northern Virginia.

“I remember sitting in my moving truck just thinking, ‘Wow, this is it. I did it,” she said. “This was a day I thought would never come.”

Bianca is philosophical about her achievements, which she credits to the supportive environment she grew up in.

“I grew up with food stamps and hand-me-down clothes that didn’t always fit right. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about having to share a twin bed with my sister or remember my dad (a pharmacy technician) coming home in the dead of night from his second job at the Shell gas station,” she said. “Despite my upbringing, I flourished because my teachers believed in me, my family pushed me, and this country gave an immigrant family a chance to prove themselves.

“When all you have is the determination to change your situation, you can change it,” she concluded. “Don’t ever become a victim of circumstance.”