It was 1974. Dr. Patricia Stephenson ’78 ’08P had been granted an interview for potential placement into an innovative program to earn a bachelor’s degree and medical degree simultaneously.

She would need a ride from her home in Long Island, N.Y., to Philadelphia.

To obtain that ride and attend that interview, she’d first need to confess to her parents that she had been secretly applying to college.

Stephenson had done well in high school, taking courses on the accelerated track, including Advanced Placement, with an emphasis on science and math. She would go on to become salutatorian.

Marie Smith gives her daughter Patricia Stephenson a hug at graduation.
At her medical school graduation, Patricia Stephenson gets a hug from her mom, Marie Smith.

But no one in her family had gone to college. Still, the classmates in her track, mostly male, talked about going to college. She decided to apply as well, using money from her babysitting jobs to pay the fees. It was a pipe dream to be accepted and enroll.

While she had not grown up thinking about being a doctor, she was excited by the idea when she applied to the new collaborative degree program. Lehigh had partnered with the Medical College of Philadelphia (what eventually became Drexel) on a six-year dual-degree program — requiring three years of undergraduate studies completed in two years, including summer courses at Lehigh, and four years of medical school.

Landing an interview into that program meant sharing her pipe dream with her parents. That confession led to some reconnaissance by her mother. If her daughter wanted to become a doctor, then speaking with the family’s trusted physician seemed reasonable.

They booked a visit to ask what he thought. His response: Why would a woman want to go to medical school? It would mean giving up marriage and children.

It wasn’t the answer they expected or hoped for.

In the car ride home, her mom said that Stephenson should prove him wrong.

“She believed in me,” says Stephenson. “She said I can do anything I want to and to not let anyone stand in my way. She also cautioned me that if I took this path, I’d often encounter attitudes like his, but I could be better than that.”

She was surprised by her mother’s candor.

“If she had not said what she did, my life would have irrevocably been changed,” Stephenson says.

Her parents drove her to the interview in Philadelphia. The program planned to accept 10 students. After all was said and done, she earned the 11th slot. 

So Stephenson adjusted her plans and started to focus on New York State colleges and universities that might be more affordable when combining her loans, financial aid, and a part-time job. 

Two women in their Lehigh brown and white celebrating and smiling

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But then the unexpected happened.

The Lehigh program expanded; it would now accept the top 12 candidates.

Stephenson was thrilled but faced a monumental decision: Could she afford to attend a private college? Making the decision more difficult, she had recently won a New York State Regents Scholarship. Her head said that Lehigh was not possible, but her heart wanted it so badly.

Then mom sat her down and had a heart-to-heart talk.

“She told me I had done my part with my grades and academic success,” Stephenson says. “She then said she would make this happen for me by going back to work.”

Stephenson’s mom did just that. The sacrifice was not lost on her daughter. It was only years later while at Lehigh that Stephenson heard her mother’s own confession: She was one of the few women in the science curriculum at her high school when she had won a physics contest and earned a scholarship to attend Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. As a female and the oldest of three, her mom couldn’t even dream of attending college.

But she could make her daughter’s dreams come true. And that she did.

Stephenson, one of the pioneering first women at Lehigh, completed a tremendous amount of work there. 

“I was so used to being one of the few women in my high school track that Lehigh felt no different to me. I always felt welcomed and never felt out of place,” Stephenson says.

She finished three years of Lehigh courses in two years. 

“I was so saturated in prerequisites, my only Lehigh regret is not being able to have a more liberal arts education,” she says. “But I loved my time at Lehigh. It was an incredible experience.”

She went on to complete her medical degree and then a four-year residency in obstetrics and gynecology. 

Pat and Don Stephenson stand on each side of their daughter at her Lehigh graduation
Pat and Don Stephenson share a moment with their daughter Rachele at her Lehigh graduation.

She met her husband while at Lehigh. When the dorms closed in the summer, she found an apartment in town so she could complete her summer coursework. Don lived next door to her apartment. While in medical school, they were married. They began their family while she was a resident.

Stephenson had a bustling and successful private practice as a physician. After 22 years of treating women, she moved into a 16-year career as a medical officer for a healthcare company.

“It was an extraordinary and rewarding second career,” she says. “More than treating the single patient in front of me, I could impact millions of women by focusing on coverage decisions, global health, and legislation.”

Then came the day her daughter, Rachele ’08, decided to attend Lehigh.

While Stephenson had taken her children to sporting events, concerts, and plays at Lehigh, neither of her children seemed to have an interest in attending her alma mater. 

“My daughter applied to Lehigh to make me happy,” she says. “But she made clear she didn’t want to go there.”

Then in the ninth hour, her daughter decided that Lehigh was the right fit. In four years, she graduated with a triple major and now works as a COO at a startup.

Stephenson’s mom was in attendance for her granddaughter’s graduation as well. 

“She was a rock in my life,” Stephenson says. Her mother passed away last year at age 96.

But two generations of Lehigh women have one person to thank for their success: Mom.