Fall 2019

On Henry Mall

Carmen Nightfall, a genetics and genomics major, walks Chase in the Emerson East neighborhood of Madison, Wis. She works as a home animal care provider, among other jobs, while earning her degree. Photo by Michael P. King

Had it not been for her father’s truck accident, Carmen Nightfall BS’x22 might never have attended college. But the unfortunate incident sparked a positive change for both of them. Today, she’s well on her way to a bachelor’s degree from CALS.

Nightfall’s childhood did not give her a positive outlook on advanced education. While in high school in Arizona, she was overlooked for career counseling and didn’t consider going to college. But when her dad’s accident forced him into early retirement, they both began to look at things differently.

“My dad got curious about the surgeries they were doing on him, and he started taking classes,” Nightfall explains. “He got a degree and then wanted to do his master’s at UW. He went and actually ended up getting an MD, and that got me thinking that it’s never too late.”

Now, at age 40, Nightfall is a genetics and genomics major and considering a switch to biology. As a returning adult student, she brings a bit more wisdom to campus than a typical undergraduate, including different perspectives on many aspects of life and worldly insight into several cultures. All of this stems from her unusual upbringing.

“My great-grandmother was a curandera, a Pascua Yaqui medicine woman,” Nightfall says. “So I’m part Pascua Yaqui and part Irish, but I spent most of my time with Navajo and Hopi. I have kind of a mixed culture. Plus, my grandmother spoke Spanish, so our heritage is a mixture of Yaqui and Mexican traditions.”

It was her grandmother, and her early experiences, that ignited Nightfall’s interest in genetics and the body. During her childhood, she was often malnourished. As she got older and started receiving food more regularly, she became interested in how food affects health and the possible genetic components of health. Her grandmother would tell her stories of cures and treatments using herbs and foods.

Nightfall’s fascination with food and health took a poignant twist in December 2017, when she found a lump on her throat and was diagnosed with cancer. She was able to complete the spring semester, but between her health, classes, and jobs, which include running her own dog-walking business, it was an overwhelming and stressful few months. Then, in October 2018, she had surgery to remove the lump. In May 2019, she underwent radiation therapy.

Just weeks after her radiation treatment, while still reeling from physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion, Nightfall was looking forward to another semester of school. While she doesn’t run into too many students her age, she enjoys her classes and the opportunities to interact with people from differing backgrounds. And she is excited to see where her degree might take her next.

“I love hydrology and nature, but I also have an interest in genetics,” Nightfall says. “I’d like to find a way to mesh hydrology, microbiology, and biology. And as cliché as it sounds, I want to figure out a way to serve people and animals and make the world a better place.”

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