Kiara Morelli defines her upbringing as “nontraditional.”
She never attended high school — at 14, she crisscrossed the country working merchandise booths at country music festivals. At 17, her mother, who had developed a substance use disorder following a surgery, lost her life. Her grandparents, who’d helped raise her, passed away some years later.
Today, Morelli, a second-year student pursuing her bachelor’s degree in nursing from the OHSU School of Nursing, reflects on her lived experience and sees how it influenced her mindset and galvanized her resolve. She has a heart for people, pursues challenges and never shies away from being uncomfortable. Those traits have led her to OHSU, to be elected president of the Oregon Student Nurses Association and to the OHSU All-Hill Student Council as a School of Nursing representative.
Despite the hurdles along her path, Morelli has always forged ahead.
“Life is fragile, uncertain and ever-changing,” Morelli said. “If you can become comfortable with change and take this culmination of experiences and choose how you respond to them, you’ll be OK. Because you’re not in control. No one is in control. But you’re in control of how you respond.”
Morelli was born in Portland but grew up in Las Vegas, where she was raised by her mom and grandparents. Her mom, Crystal, underwent surgery when Morelli was 10. When addiction to post-surgery pain medication gave way to a substance use disorder, Crystal lost the business she’d started and Morelli, then 13 years old, left school.
“[My mom’s] life taught me not to judge people or to make those decisions of who lives or dies, but to practice the medicine and use the skills required of my medical training.”Kiara Morelli
Through her early teenage years, Morelli traveled around the country working for a small company and sold their products at country music festivals. After working the booth during the Oregon Jamboree Music Festival, she began living with an aunt in Portland.
Morelli, who’d always known she wanted to go to college, began studying for her GED. She sailed through her first three exams, but as she climbed into her aunt’s car after the final test, she had a feeling she hadn’t passed. A few minutes later, she received an email congratulating her on earning her GED.
“I was like, ‘I get to go to college. Oh my gosh. I’m so excited. Let me call my mom,’” she said. “So I go to call my mother, and my other aunt — my mother’s sister — picks up the phone. And she’s like, ‘I’m so proud of you. And your mother would be so proud of you. Your mother passed away last night.’”
Morelli’s grandparents had admitted her mom into a Las Vegas-area hospital for chest pain. Though she was on track to overcome her substance use disorder, the hospital hesitated to treat her. The hospital did not discover the pneumothorax in her left lung. Her condition caused her to develop sepsis, and she died soon after.
“I don’t think my mom was the sole reason I wanted to become a nurse, but it was a factor,” Morelli said. “Her life taught me not to judge people or to make those decisions of who lives or dies, but to practice the medicine and use the skills required of my medical training.”
Morelli started school at Portland Community College, taking prerequisites for Oregon State University’s dietetics program. She, however, pivoted her focus to nursing during the onset of COVID-19.
“I know that medicine can sometimes be difficult, challenging and uncomfortable, and it sparked an interest in me,” she said.
Fast forward to today. Morelli is pursuing her goal of being a nurse practitioner at her dream school. She’s leaned on her student resources, faculty and mentors for support. She is interested in conducting research and has begun collaborating with an OHSU faculty member on a project studying health care bias. As president of the Oregon Student Nurses Association, she is coordinating the return of in-person nursing conventions and connecting students to professional mentors and resources.
Morelli is confident that the OHSU School of Nursing aligns with her values and is the perfect place to succeed.
“OHSU prides itself on diversity and innovation; I believe in these things, too,” she said. “There are people here from different backgrounds, different thoughts, different ideas, different visions of how to make health care better. I don’t think every university is built that way, and that’s important to me. It feels like being home here. I think OHSU gets me in a way that a lot of places wouldn’t have.”