June 2, 2012
By Amy Hughes
Erica Tukiainen's path has never been one that is "traditional" or "normal", at least when compared to her American peers.
Born and raised in Finland, Tukiainen and her family came to Los Angeles in 2000, with Erica and her brother Daniel not speaking a word of English. Today, she is a Class of 2010 UCLA graduate with a major in French, and is preparing to enter UCLA Medical School in the fall.
"I've been here for 23 years, and she is the first one in the program who has gone to medical school," said Pam Walker, who recently completed her fourth season as Director of Operations for the Bruins women's basketball team after 19 years as an assistant coach. "I'm just so proud of her. All of it has been earned. She has put the time into the books and internships. Everything she has done has led her to the place where she is today."
Overweight and far from athletic as a child, Tukiainen's story starts in Finland.
"Some kids know at a very young age that they want to be a doctor when they grow up," said Tukiainen. "I think I've had phases in my life that created this foundation for medicine. When I was very young growing up in Finland, I was very overweight; very chubby and short. I definitely did not think I would one day be a Division I student-athlete."
It was Tukiainen's mother who encouraged Erica to start her athletic career.
"My mom was really there for me," said Tukiainen. "She wanted me to be healthier, and that's how she pushed me into basketball. I learned at that point that I needed to be able to take care of myself, so kind of self-doctoring. As I grew up, I became more and more interested in the sciences."
In 2000, when Tukiainen and her family moved to Los Angeles, the first challenge was learning the language of their hometown.
"It was like day and night," Tukiainen said of her transition from Finland to the United States. "Growing up in Finland, my younger brother and I were raised by my mother and grandmother. My mom really taught me the importance of a work ethic, and that really prepared me for when I came to Los Angeles, because that was really about hard work.
"I didn't speak a word of English when I came here, not to mention that I was a teenager, so I literally felt like the world did not understand me. It [didn't improve] until I went to El Rodeo Middle School, where I took English as a Second Language classes. It was boot camp. English all day and night."
That work ethic also applied to athletics.
"In Finland, my mom had always pushed us and made sure that we realized that nothing good comes easily; you have to earn it," Tukiainen said. "When I finally started playing basketball, those were things I always remembered when I was on the court. When you work in a team setting, you have to be disciplined, and you have to know how to not just push yourself but others as well."
That work ethic eventually brought her to Westwood as part of the UCLA women's basketball program.
"She was someone who really put a great deal of time and thought into the decision to come to UCLA," recalled Walker. "I remember on her official visit, she spent time with not only the athletes at the football game, but we saw her going up to regular students and asking why they selected UCLA. She did a lot of research before she chose to come here and really embraced the entire experience at UCLA. Not just as a student-athlete, but certainly as a student, she did a lot of internships, she did community service. She is someone who was a very well-rounded Bruin, and she really got the very most out of her student-athlete experience."
Tukiainen had UCLA at the top of her list of schools, which also included Harvard, Arizona State and California. "My mom and stepdad insisted that I go on all of my visits and really make a sound decision and make sure that wherever I go, it sets me up for the future. It wasn't just about basketball, but about academics, social life, networking, everything. We literally did a grid and grading system to get an objective sense of what each school had to over, but once I took my visit to UCLA, everything just seemed to click into place."
Tukiainen's methodical approach had an impact on her teammates once she was part of the UCLA women's basketball team.
"She is not a last minute kind of person," said Walker. "E likes to plan ahead. If she had a paper due, she was going to prepare for that and have her notes ready, and she was a positive influence on the rest of the players. She organized her time in a way that would get the rest of her teammates to do the same, especially on road trips."
More evidence of Tukiainen's non-traditional path to medical school comes to the surface when her activities in the past two years are discussed. After walking in graduation ceremonies in June 2010, Tukiainen spent the first six months studying for her MCAT, then started working at UCLA's School of Public Health.
"I worked with Dr. Toni Yancey, and we worked with physical activity promotion, so it was right up my alley," said Tukiainen. "It's one of the reasons I enjoyed being in public health, so I could contribute some of my knowledge from being a student-athlete. In addition, I've volunteered at hospitals and shadowed doctors. It's been about preparing for medical school and making sure this is the right thing and it's what feels good in my heart. It feels like where I am supposed to be.
"When I was playing basketball at UCLA with the pre-medical studies, and being a French major, and practice and travel, it was really hard to do research. It was hard to be able to shadow or get any kind of volunteer experience. That's why I needed some time off to prepare for medical school."
Tukiainen is well aware that her choices have been very different from most of her classmates come the start of medical school this fall.
"I was a non-traditional student applying to medical schools," said Tukiainen. "I was not a science major. I did my medical requirements on the side. I love languages. I wanted to have a culturally diverse background in part because I was born and raised in a different country. I got a lot of wonderful support from the French department. I had professors who came to my games and really cheered me on.
Tukiainen has sound advice for those looking to apply to medical school.
"Pursue an undergrad major that feels good for you," she recommended. "One that not only prepares you for medical school, but allows you to explore yourself and make yourself a more worldly, understanding person. When you go to medical school, it's a lot more than what you see in the science classes. It's about dealing with different personalities and characters. So while you're an undergrad, it's important to have as many diverse experiences as possible.
"I'm glad I was a French major. I'm so happy I was a student-athlete. I know it was challenging, but it was worth it, and I am absolutely excited about having this opportunity to continue at UCLA."