Imagine being 16 years old, barely finishing sophomore year and having just gone through a domestic violence case with an ex-boyfriend — which resulted in episodes of PTSD. Then your school says graduation isn’t a reality, because so many hours of class have been missed.

That was the unusual beginning of a success story for Lauren Rice of Rio Rancho. 

Today, she is an accomplished pediatric nurse tech. (who will receive her full nurse title when she graduates) and was just named Miss Rio Rancho USA in a USA New Mexico pageant. 

Her path was loaded with obstacles though. Among her obstacles, COVID, which for a nurse is particularly daunting, bagging bodies, a discouraging principal and worst of all — an auto-immune disease that makes her own body attack itself.

“I just remember my principal telling me I wouldn’t amount to anything and thinking: ‘I want to be a nurse. What do I do?’” Rice said.

That was when Rice and her mother decided she should drop the school and get her GED (General Education Development) at CNM in Rio Rancho. The GED allows people to get a high school diploma without attending high school

“Of course, it didn’t happen over night, but I studied as much as possible and in like four months, I did it,” she said.

At 16, Rice had already done what some people never do. It didn’t stop there.

She embarked on a career path as a nurse and earned her certification through CNM by the time she was 17. One problem — 18 is the required age to work in a hospital. So she had to wait for a few months before she could join a program as a nurse. 


Lauren Rice graduated with honors from CNM at the age she would have graduated from high school. (Michaela Helean/The Observer)

In the meantime, she helped senior citizens at The Neighborhood, an assisted living community in Rio Rancho. 

“I loved it, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” she said.

When she finally came of age and started working at UNM Sandoval Regional Medical Center, COVID almost immediately hit.

“I sort of floated down to the COVID section,” she said, “and they asked me to bag bodies…which I had never done before in my life.”

Rice described the experience as “totally awkward and weird” her first time. She went on to bag at least 10 bodies every day during the worst part of the pandemic.

During this time, Rice started having immune system issues. Doctors still have trouble diagnosing the root of her issue.

“I didn’t get COVID, but I definitely was sick all the time,” she said.

After that Rice applied to three programs: the CNM Nursing Associate, CNM/UNM Dual program and the UNM Sandoval Regional Medical pre-licensure. Though she did not get into the CNM or dual programs, she did get into the UNM SRMC program, which only takes 24 people every year.

“I was relieved to know I would be going somewhere I want to be,” she said.

Her next step? She wants to become a pediatric cardiovascular surgeon and help children get heart transplants. 

If her career so far is an example, don’t bet against her.