Jessica Ferreira, whose Native American background remains a significant part of her identity, earned praise not only for academic achievements but also for her selfless approach to life. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

The idea of being a Deans’ Award winner was so foreign to Jessica Ferreira that, when she learned she had been given that honor, she had to look up exactly what it meant.

“I really wasn’t sure what it meant,” she said. “I had to Google it. It was all so surreal.”

Other traits come more naturally. She was chosen as the College of Arts and Letters’ 2019 honoree for academic achievement and also for her contributions to the campus and the community – as well as for the obstacles she surmounted on her path to a degree and, she hopes, a career as a physician assistant.

Ferreira will stride across the stage and collect a degree in Humanities and Religious Studies during Arts and Letters’ Commencement on Friday, May 17. That will culminate a journey begun in earnest in 2012 as a reentry student at College of the Redwoods in Eureka.

During high school, Ferreira bore the weighty assignment of much of her younger siblings’ care from age 14. With her single mother working 12-hour night shifts as a registered nurse, Ferreira saw to it that homework was finished and meals were prepared. Her initial college enrollment in 2001 liberated her from that responsibility. She “got sidetracked” as schoolwork took a backseat to a good time, but held jobs in banking and retail and did some traveling.

The financial crisis of 2008 was eye-opening and spurred her to pursue a recessional-proof career in health care. Ferreira commuted weekends from Sacramento to Santa Rosa, where she took classes to get her phlebotomy license. She became state certified and needed experience but couldn’t get a foot in the door in Sacramento.

Ferreira and her eventual husband, Eric, moved back to Hoopa, the Native American reservation in the northwestern part of the state where she was raised until moving to Sacramento at 14. Ferreira found phlebotomy work at a clinic on the reservation, where interactions with physician assistant students working their rotations sparked her interest in that vocation.

Like many reservations, Hoopa has gaps in health care. Its clinic is closed weekends. The community has two native doctors and a nurse practitioner, but they are stretched thin.

“You’re treating other reservations within the area as well as non-natives,” Ferreira said.

The nearest hospital is nearly an hour-and-a-half away by car, and weather can make mountain thoroughfares unpassable. Ferreira sees an opportunity to make a difference by serving the community in the medical field.

“We are very proud of Jessica in Humanities and Religious Studies,” said Alyson Buckman, chair of the department. “She is an exemplary, dedicated student, seeking to make connections on her own among her various fields of study within the department, from ancient Greece to contemporary American culture.

"Additionally, she understands her role as a model. She embodies the Hornet Honor Code in her deportment, acting honestly, with integrity, and with respect for others.”

Ferreira also puts others before herself. She annually participates in Operation Backpack, which provides school supplies to disadvantaged children, as well as the holiday season’s Adopt a Family program, donating essential items and food to needy families. She also went to great lengths to help her family when duty called.

After two years at Sierra College, Ferreira had transferred to Sacramento State for the 2017-18 school year when her grandmother fell ill with terminal cancer. She spent weekends much of the year driving the nearly 300 miles back to Hoopa to care for her grandmother and give her mother, cousins and aunts relief until her grandmother died. Only months later, Ferreira's father-in-law also succumbed to cancer. That sent the couple reeling emotionally and financially, and was especially tough on Eric, who leaned on Jessica as he mourned.

Though she was occupied with school and work throughout these trials, Ferreira said she was the logical choice when it was time to help.

“Availability,” she answered when asked why she stepped up. “Yeah, I (was) working and going to school full time – and I was 300 miles away – but you can’t leave all that responsibility on two people.

"We’re always there to support and pick each other up. That’s what our family is.” – Ahmed V. Ortiz