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Promise Student Series: Growing Up Alongside Kalamazoo

Cara Cunliffe | KzooConnect

Cara Cunliffe grew up in the Westwood neighborhood, located a few miles west of downtown Kalamazoo. She has fond memories of riding her bike to her friends' houses, attending the annual ice cream social at the fire station and playing on the playground at King-Westwood Elementary School.

Cara spent her entire K-12 career in Kalamazoo Public Schools, attending Indian Prairie Elementary, King-Westwood Elementary, Hillside Middle School, and graduating from Kalamazoo Central High School.

"I really appreciate the diversity of my education in KPS. The different viewpoints and experiences of my fellow students and my educators really enriched my experience and
prepared me for the world beyond school."

Growing up, Cara and her siblings were raised with the expectation that they would attend college. Her parents were determined to make the sacrifices necessary for all four children to earn their bachelor's degrees. When the Kalamazoo Promise was announced in 2005, the relief and celebration in the Cunliffe household was palpable.

"The Kalamazoo Promise changed my whole life." Cara says, "My parents were able to focus on enriching our childhood experience with the burden of paying for college removed from their shoulders. This meant that we were able to pursue our extra-curricular activities and travel together as a family."

Healthcare has always held a strong appeal for Cara. In high school, she took advantage of the many science courses offered at Kalamazoo Central, and took the initiative to shadow certified registered nurse anesthetist, (CRNAs) as a high school student.

"I knew I wanted to work in healthcare, but that I also want a family, and nursing offers me the opportunity to balance both."

She applied for, and received, the prestigious Heyl Scholarship to attend the Bronson School of Nursing at Western Michigan University. The combination of The Kalamazoo Promise and the Heyl Scholarship meant that Cara earned her bachelor's degree completely debt-free.

After college graduation, Cara worked as a nurse in the intensive care unit at Borgess Medical Center. She shares, "Working in the ICU, most of my patients were unable to talk, but it is amazing how much caring for a person can change your life. Working with each patient and their family had an impact on me; every day it reminds me that I chose the right career path."

Because of The Promise, Cara saved money during her first few years out of college instead of making student loan payments. This allowed her to take the next step on her career path. Cara currently attends graduate school full time, studying to become a nurse anesthetist.

"I love the combination of complexity and patient care that anesthetist work allows. There is a high level of responsibility for keeping people safe and alive while they undergo surgical procedures, and making sure they feel comfortable and cared for both before and after surgery."

Cara is earning her degree from Oakland University, a program she selected for its caliber, the ability to remain living in Kalamazoo, and for the opportunity to do her clinical rotations with Kalamazoo Anesthesiology.

"I feel like the city of Kalamazoo has been growing right along with me," Cara shares, "it was not until I entered college that I really appreciated living in such a vibrant community."

The abundance of restaurants, regular live music and great coffee shops draws Cara and her friends to downtown Kalamazoo for study breaks and relaxation.

"There is always great food and something fun going on."

She has returned to living in Westwood, and loves that she still knows many of her neighbors. With the demands of graduate school, Cara is not able to get out and have fun as much as she would like, but many a gorgeous day will find her making time for a bike ride along her beloved Kal-Haven Trail or getting fresh fruit and vegetables from the Kalamazoo Farmer's Market.

"Kalamazoo is my home. The way that it has grown, expanded and flourished throughout my life is one of the reasons I know that I am putting down permanent roots here," Cunliffe shared.

After earning her master's degree in December 2018, Cara eagerly anticipates the next step in her career and her life. "I look forward to working at a local healthcare facility, having a family, sending my children to KPS, and exploring the next phase of activities and opportunities that Kalamazoo has to offer."

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