As the smoke of the Creek Fire inched closer to her Auberry home, Mindy Ross was faced with the possibility of losing most of her belongings. Forced to grab only the necessities, Ross and her family hurried out the door and into the hot, hazy air — her backpack, filled with school supplies, strapped over her shoulders. 

Her family’s safety superseded all else in that moment on Sept. 5, 2020, in the early stages of what became the largest single blaze in California history.

“It was like I was just on autopilot,” said Ross, a speech-language pathology student who was selected as the University Graduate Medalist, Fresno State’s highest honor for a graduate student. “I just grabbed my backpack, my laptop and my scrubs — basically items that I needed for my Saint Agnes Medical Center externship, and a few other items. I didn’t think we would be gone for long or that the fire would get as big as it did. So I packed only what I needed for one week.” 

It turns out Ross and her family — her husband and two kids — were displaced from their home for over a month, and were evacuated multiple times as the fire that eventually burned about 380,000 acres surrounding Shaver Lake crept closer and closer to each home they temporarily occupied. 

However, this was not Ross’ first brush with fire. She also lived through the Willow Fire in 2015 and the Mission Fire in 2017, during her first semester at Fresno State. Her home was spared from destruction each time.

Ross began her student clinician externship with Saint Agnes Medical Center just three days after the Creek Fire evacuation. Throughout that time, she only missed one night of her externship during the four weeks that she was displaced. Ross said taking a break was never an option, as the externship was essential to completing her degree requirements.

“I feel like we were all staring at our phones, watching this fire get bigger and bigger,” Ross said. “It was completely out of our control and there was nothing we could do, but watch it all play out. It was overwhelming and scary, but going to my externship at the hospital gave me something else to focus on. Putting my energy toward something good was just the kind of distraction I needed.”

In December, Ross completed her externship, and that same month, earned her master’s degree in communicative sciences and deaf studies, with an emphasis in speech-language pathology. She will participate in the College of Health and Human Services commencement ceremony at 7 p.m. Friday, May 14, at Bulldog Stadium. 

She graduated with a 4.0 GPA and earned the Graduate Deans’ Medalist for the College of Health and Human Services. Chosen from a group of nine Deans’ Graduate Medalists from the various schools and colleges on campus, Ross was surprised with her selection as University Graduate Medalist on May 11 during a Zoom call with Interim Fresno State President Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval and Interim Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Xuanning Fu. 

In many ways, Ross is a prime example that, with dedication and drive, anything is possible, regardless of limitations. 

“What my journey so far has taught me is that sometimes we come to a bump in the road, but it’s important to stick together, adapt and keep moving forward,” Ross said. 

For Ross, her journey began in the small mountainside community where she grew up. She would later marry at 18 and start a small family. Thirteen years later and after a series of setbacks, including a divorce and the loss of her father, Ross knew she needed to pave a new path and show her children her resilience firsthand. 

This led to her starting college later in life, first at Oakhurst Community College, and then at Fresno State, where she ultimately earned her bachelor’s degree, also in speech-language pathology. At the time, she graduated with a 4.0 GPA, and created a Bulldog legacy, inspiring both her kids to attend college, with her son beginning Fresno State in the fall. Ross’ husband is also an alumnus of the University.

“This has been an amazing and rewarding experience for my family,” Ross said. “There is a real pride being in this community of Bulldogs.”

After earning her master’s degree in December, Ross quickly launched her career with Clovis Unified School District, where she originally started out as a student teacher just a year earlier. Considered her dream job, Ross is now a language/speech specialist for two different school sites, where she works with preschool-aged children who demonstrate autistic-like behavior and also provides services to special education elementary students on Individualized Education Plans. 

“Being a speech-language pathologist is multifaceted,” said Dr. Brooke Findley, assistant professor in the Department of Communicative Sciences and Deaf Studies and Ross’ former clinical supervisor. “It requires extensive academic knowledge and an innate ability to ensure sessions are productive, functional and engaging. Mindy excels in each of these areas. She is resilient and such a strong representative of our University.”

Mindy Ross was selected as the College of Health and Human Services’ Graduate Dean’s Medalist and also received the prestigious California State University, Fresno University Graduate Medal, which is the highest honor the University presents to a graduate student. The University Graduate Medalist is selected from the nine graduate Dean’s Medalists who represent the academic colleges and schools and the Division of Student Affairs. Read more in Fresno State News.