When my parents moved to California from Mexico, they didn’t know the language or educational system. My mom only finished fifth grade in Mexico, and my dad didn’t finish high school because he had to work. So, once it was time to start school, the only advice they could give me was to do my best and work hard.
Seeing my parents, especially my father, work seven days a week doing hard, manual labor — while never complaining — was what really set the example. I learned from him to always do my best and be proud of my work.
That’s what pushed me to challenge myself in high school, which led to a lot of opportunities once I began to apply to college. In school, I was always interested in math and did very well in science. With the help of chemistry teachers who encouraged me to consider sciences, biology, and even medicine, I was accepted to Columbia University as a C.P. Davis Scholar with a full ride and pursued biomedical engineering as a major.
Through the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, I enrolled in a mentoring program in my freshman year. I was matched with Dr. Adriana Matiz, who is of Colombian descent and a general pediatrician who works at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center. She took me under her wing and was an amazing role model. She was finally someone I could talk to, with a similar background, who could help me understand what I needed to do to ensure my success. She continues to be a great mentor.
One day, while shadowing Dr. Matiz, I remember a moment that helped solidify my decision to go into pediatrics. She was seeing an infant for a checkup. The mother brought a friend who also had a baby, and she said, “Oh, Dr. Matiz is great. She’s a great doctor who really listens to you.” The conversation was in both English and Spanish, and it was amazing to witness the trust the mother had in Dr. Matiz that prompted the woman to refer her friend, who developed a great relationship with the doctor, as well. Open communication was key.
I was also lucky to have a second clinical experience through a research program for minority students interested in pediatric oncology that required working with a mentor. This led me to Dr. Julia Glade Bender.
Throughout my time with Dr. Bender, I witnessed the relationships she built with so many of her patients and their families, who continue to stay in touch years later.
And with those interactions, I came to understand the importance of interdisciplinary teams. It was never just the doctor. It was the nurse, the social worker, the therapist, the psychiatrist … everyone knew the families so well, and that’s what really attracted me to oncology. It was the ability to establish a strong relationship in a really stressful time in a family’s life when their child is diagnosed with cancer — and subsequently seeing how the kids are doing so much better now.
These experiences prompted me to further explore pediatric hematology oncology. I first became interested in this field in my sophomore year in college when my cousin from California told me that her 1-year-old baby sister had just been diagnosed with leukemia. When I was home for winter break, I visited her in the hospital several times. That really was my first exposure to cancer in the pediatric population. She eventually ended up getting a bone marrow transplant; her other sister was a match. Seeing how my baby cousin was very sick but ended up being cured — and how she had an amazing team — was what made me seek more opportunities to be exposed to pediatric oncology.
Another area that’s important to me is bolstering the ranks of minorities in medicine. I was recently accepted into the New Century Scholars Program, a national program that recruits minority pediatric residents with the hope of having them continue on to academic medicine. People of color are underrepresented in medical school, and even more so in academic medicine. And the fact that 50 years ago, only 2 percent of academic physicians were Latino and that number still hasn’t changed — that’s a problem.
The population in the United States is changing, and physicians should reflect that. And with more minorities in academic medicine, we can continue to mentor and have other students see us as role models.
I’ve benefited so much from Dr. Matiz’s and Dr. Bender’s guidance, so mentorship will always be very near and dear to my heart, especially as a first-generation college student from a low-income family. I enjoy mentoring a handful of premed students from across the country, especially students who have similar backgrounds to me. It is unfortunate that some advisers discourage minority students to continue into medicine if they don’t have a 4.0 or a perfect MCAT.
It’s challenging to believe in yourself — to know that you can do it. We all struggle with that. But I go back to what my dad taught me: You always do your best — no matter what. People will try to discourage you, but don’t let them. Find the people who are going to be positive, be on your side, your personal cheerleaders … they’re the ones who matter.