Tiffany Calzadilla is both a nursing school student and a first-grade teacher.
After four years of long days instructing students at Somerset Academy in Miramar and then going home to study for nursing exams, she recently passed her last, most difficult final test and received her nursing degree from West Coast University in Doral.
“I had to take time off work to study,” said Calzadilla. “I spent all day studying, from morning to night. The day of the test, I was pacing, checking, and refreshing the page until it showed us that our professor sent us a message. As soon as we walked in, [she] turned around and said, ‘You guys passed!’, and everyone was literally screaming, crying, and excited that it was finally over and we did it!”
In her 25 years, Calzadilla has been through a lot. Her mother was diagnosed with lupus after her birth; her parents separated when she was nine years old; she was diagnosed with diabetes at 20 years old; and she became an elementary school teacher in order to pay for nursing school. All that was definitely a challenge, but her parents and friends were always there.
And it is a good thing that she’s worked so hard. Her new profession faces a shortage in the future. The Florida Hospital Association in 2022 projected the state will have “a shortage of almost 60,000 nurses by 2035.” That means unless more people enter the field, they will have to handle more patients on their own and not provide optimum care.
“As a nurse, you are witnessing people in their most vulnerable moments,” said Calzadilla. “You need to be able to show compassion and empathy for them in a moment like that.”
Calzadilla was born in Miami and raised in Hialeah Gardens with her older brother, mother, father and pets. Shortly after her birth, her mother was diagnosed with multiple autoimmune diseases, including lupus, scleroderma, Raynaud’s, and more. Paramedics often visited her house to treat her mother. Those terrifying moments shaped her dream of becoming a nurse.
“I was freaked out, and I felt useless because I couldn’t do anything to help my mom feel better, ” Calzadilla recalls. “So I kind of always wanted to be able to help other people feel better,”
Calzadilla’s youth included many Disney World trips, having big birthday parties, owning a variety of toys and clothing, and feeling like the family never needed anything.
“Even though most times my mom wasn’t feeling good, she made sure we had the best childhood,” she adds. “We had everything we needed and more.”
But then, when Calzadilla was nine, her parents decided to divorce. Arguments were common.
“Around that time, the conditions at home were more difficult because there was a lot of arguing and yelling that we had never seen before,” Calzadilla said, adding that she was confused and downhearted at the time.
Calzadilla graduated from West Broward High School in 2015; she was always a very studious person who prioritized her academics above all. She focused on building her future to work in the medical field and got a job at an animal hospital.
“So I did have to kind of sacrifice a few times, like going out with friends and hanging out, because I had an angle in mind,” Calzadilla said. “I was always at home studying, but I don’t regret it.”
In 2015, Calzadilla started at Florida International University as a biology major, hoping to become a veterinarian. She looked up to the doctors she worked with and gained a lot of advice. But two years into her degree, she lost interest in being a vet and decided to go into nursing.
“I started taking the prerequisites for nursing, but at that point I just wanted to finish my degree at FIU,” Calzadilla explains. “The only degree that included all the random classes that I had taken was liberal studies.”
Calzadilla began experiencing strange changes in her body in 2017. She frequently struggles with nutrition, eating only two meals a day, and she began to feel thirstier than usual. Calzadilla was familiar with diabetes symptoms from nursing school and her father’s experience.
“After eating one day at work, I checked my blood sugar to see if it was very high, and it was at 472—almost at the point of a diabetic coma,” Clazadilla recalls. “Right there, I left work; I met my mom at the ER, where they ran bloodwork and administered insulin and told me I needed to see an endocrinologist right away.”
Calzadilla became more conscious of eating a healthier diet in order to maintain an average blood sugar level and manage her diabetes. Having to go to so many doctor’s appointments herself has also motivated her future in nursing.
“Being diabetic, I’ve experienced good nurses and bad nurses,” Calzadilla said. “I feel like that’s also shaped my mentality of what type of nurse I want to be once I go into the field.”
Calzadilla graduated from Florida International University in June 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies and a minor in criminal justice, and she was about to begin her first semester of nursing school at West Coast University.
She wasn’t able to obtain financial aid for nursing school due to already having a bachelor’s degree and needing a different job to pay for her classes.
“My job at the animal hospital wasn’t paying enough, so I had to figure out what I could do with my liberal studies degree,” Calzadilla thought at the time. “I studied for a few weeks for my teaching exam, which I passed on the first try, and I became a teacher.”
In August of 2019, she began working as an elementary school teacher at Somerset Academy Miramar. Working from early mornings until late afternoons teaching and tutoring students, then returning home to study for the rest of the night, is not easy.
“There were a lot of days where I felt like quitting and giving up; I thought I was crazy for doing everything that I was doing at the same time, but my parents were always like, ‘You started this, you’re going to finish this, you know nothing is too big, and you need to follow through with it,’” Calzadilla said.
Linda Calzadilla, Tiffany’s mother, always knew this was her daughter’s calling and is so proud of her daughter’s achievements.
“At times, it was difficult for me to see her struggling so much, but I knew that God had a plan, and that was the purpose,” Linda Calzadilla said. “And she had to go through that in order for her to get to where she’s supposed to be in the future.”
In January 2023, Calzadilla took a week off of work to study for the nursing exam, which was 180 questions long and covered content from the beginning of the course to the end.
Calzadilla was ecstatic when she found out she had passed her exam. Her former coworkers at Somerset Academy Miramar were proud.
“The first grade team and I were so excited for her, and we actually decorated her whole classroom when she wasn’t there for a whole week,” Maryanne Alexandra, Calzadilla’s former friend and coworker, happily said. “We made sure that we all got together to get her some treats and make her a card.”
Calzadilla will not return to teaching after her contract expires in June, but she does see herself as a nursing professor in the future. She is currently looking forward to her student nursing internship at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in the summer.
“That was always where I wanted to go when I started nursing,” Calzadilla said. “I’ve always wanted to do pediatrics, so I’m hoping that I’ll be a pediatric emergency room nurse and eventually transfer to the ICU.”
But there is more to come, she says.
“I’m already applying for my master’s program to eventually become a doctor.” she says.