This DACA Student’s Journey to Becoming a Medical Student

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PMY 410: This DACA Student's Journey to Becoming a Medical Student

Session 410

Cheril Patel is a DACA recipient, who talks about his journey through undergrad, the application, and now, a medical student.

We didn’t talk as much about the premed journey. But we talked about the journey itself as a DACA recipient. Now, a lot of students have reached out to me to ask if he has ever had a DACA recipient on the podcast.

Cheril went to Canada from India and then came to the U.S. at 10 years old. Now, as a first-year medical student, we’re going to talk about all the normal struggles that premeds have. And then the extra struggles, especially the emotional struggles, when it comes to being a DACA recipient and all of the unknown that comes with that status.

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Listen to this podcast episode with the player above, or keep reading for the highlights and takeaway points.

[01:55] Interest in Becoming a Physician

Cheril has always been really good at science and math. In high school, he realized he loved meeting new people. So he thought the health profession would be a good fit for me. And then college hit and did the basic pre-health biology track.

After his first year, he became a CNA. Being with patients and being a part of the patient care team creating meaningful relationships is what drove him to want to be a physician. He wanted to lead the care team to impact these patients and continue helping others. They had a lot geriatric patients and this touched him deeply.

Cheril didn’t have anybody in his family in health care except for his sister who became a respiratory technician during his second and third years of college.

[04:02] His Thought Process Being a DACA Applicant

It started in 2017 when the doctors within the Trump administration shut down the DACA program and then they gave Congress six months. Cheril describes it as being some of the worst times in their life. They had to constantly check the news every day hoping for a better answer and still not finding anything.

During that time, he did a lot of self-reflection. He talked to his support system and thought about the experiences he’s been through. He realized that at the end of the day, there are always going to be obstacles. But he has enough confidence in himself to know that he can pursue these goals. And to get through it, just take it one step at a time.

Doing his research, it was a lot of Google searching when it came to seeking resources for DACA recipients applying to medical schools. And one really big pillar that gave him hope was a school in Chicago that’s big on diversity and there were DACA medical students.

He never really contacted them but that gave him hope. And during the time when the Trump administration wanted to shut down the program, the AAMC gave a very profound message supporting DACA, which was reassuring. 

'If these medical schools are willing to take DACA applicants, then he has a shot.'Click To Tweet

[07:09] The Difference Between a DACA Applicant and a “Normal” Applicant

Out of 160 medical schools in the U.S., only about 70 accept DACA applicants. There was a state medical school right across the street from his undergrad institution. Sadly, he couldn’t apply there because they didn’t accept DACA applicants. So you have to find, you have to really hone in on your school list and ask these questions of like, if these students are if the schools do accept DACA applicants, how do they do it? And what kind of support that they could provide?

The Medical School Admission Requirements (MSAR) has really good information whether DACA applications are accepted by the schools and if there’s any special consideration. 

Cheril applied to both MD and DO schools. Sadly, DO schools didn’t have that information up front. So he had to email and call all 30-60 schools in the United States personally, and ask them if they do take DACA applications? And if they do, do they consider if it’s in-state or out-of-state? Is there any special circumstance that he needs to do? And there were 12 of them that did accept these applications. For the most part, the process for him during undergrad was pretty normal.

The hardest parts about it are just getting into schools and finding funding for school. Because as a DACA recipient, they don’t have access to any federal resources, including home scholarships, Pell Grants, and even federal student loans. Thankfully, he received an honor scholarship that paid his tuition. He lived with his mom during undergrad.

“You're just a typical student, except that you have to renew every two years and you have to go through some hassles with paperwork and renew your DACA status.”Click To Tweet

[10:50] Funding for Medical School

Finance was Cheril’s big worry point for starting school. He had to personally just rely on private student loans and he was specifically looking at two companies. However, as a DACA recipient, you still have to find a cosigner that has worthy credit. 

“If you’re thinking about this process, and if you're early enough, definitely start looking and start asking these questions about who can be your cosigner?”Click To Tweet

The interest rates for Sallie Mae were really high for Cheril and his family and they couldn’t handle that burden. While they found Discover Student Loans to be a lot more financially reasonable and felt it was a good choice.

Both of those companies did have health professional loans, specifically geared towards medical school and they understand the process of residency and deferment. So there are a couple of options.

[13:12] The Hardest Part

The hardest part for Cheril was that because they only had two-year terms as DACA recipients, he learned not to be planning for the future because everything was on a whim. You never knew what was going to happen the next day.

He found it really hard to plan for the future so he could only think in  really short intervals. And medical school planning takes a couple of years so you have to have good foresight. So he just had to really have that hope and belief that things were going to work out.

[14:12] Who is a DACA Recipient?

Cheril was born in India. When he was five years old, his parents moved to Canada and lived there for about five years. Then they came to the United States without the proper documentation and he has lived in their nomadic childhood. They moved from Alabama, Florida, and New Hampshire to Mississippi, Florida, and Tennessee.

Then DACA had just started as a program for letting children that came into the United States undocumented, before a certain date and before the age of 16, to allow them to have a social security and a workers permit.

He didn’t realize how important that was until he began looking at colleges and thinking about his future. And that’s when the program really had its benefits for him. It gave him this belief that he could reach his higher educational goals.

To get citizenship or at least a permanent resident status, there are only two options. Either the administration will find a legal pathway for them or he has to marry a citizen and then get his legal status through that.

[16:16] The Interview Process

A lot of students potentially don’t understand, whether you’re a DACA recipient or an undocumented immigrant in this country, that you actually participate in taxes and do all of that as well.

“Medical schools want enriching experiences with students, and they want different students with different experiences.”Click To Tweet

Cheril believes that being a DACA recipient, you have this experience into these communities that not many people have. So he personally made sure to write about being a DACA recipient.

And during the interview, if they would ask him about things like overcoming challenges, DACA would be the first thing he would talk about. He would share with them his struggles and his successes. Thankfully, most of them responded to it well.

[19:13] The Emotional Struggles as a DACA Applicant

Not knowing what the future holds for DACA recipients in terms of status, Cheril admits that it’s really tough.

“It's really hard not to worry about those things because this is ultimately where I want to be. And just thinking about having to leave is very heartbreaking.”Click To Tweet

Sadly, the decision from the current administration shortened the two-year renewals into one year.

Cheril admits he has given up hope that things can change from an administrative standpoint. The only thing he can control is how he works around and how he views things. So he takes things a day at a time and he would just cross those challenges and bridges when they come up.

Cheril definitely thought about applying to a medical school in Canada. But at the end of the day, he views himself as American. And he wants to have an impact in the U.S. and this is what keeps him going.

He admits having a small thought of blame on his parents. But for the most part, Cheril just feels grateful for the sacrifice of his parents. He dearly looks up to them and respects them because they did this wanting a better life for their family.

“A lot of immigrants are here because they want better lives for their family, for their children, for themselves.”Click To Tweet

[23:54] Getting a Medical School Acceptance

The day he received his medical school acceptance, Cheril described how surreal it felt like. The school that he’s going to now was actually his first interview and his first acceptance. In fact, he couldn’t believe it at first and asked the Dean who contacted him if they got the right person. Once he hung up the phone, he was just screaming and he called his parents to share the good news. In fact, he felt this meant a lot more to his parents than it did to him at that moment. Although he never really talked to them about it.

[25:57] The Hardest Part of Medical School

Medical school is a beast. They’re currently in anatomy and there’s so much content to know about the body. But you just take that a day at a time.

And because of the COVID situation, and not being able to be as social as he would like, Cheril has found this more difficult, being a social person.

“You just take one day at a time.”Click To Tweet

Especially being a DACA recipient, he learned a lot about resiliency. Hopefully, it’s going to come in handy for the rest of his medical training.

Cheril hopes to be able to stay in the U.S. and be able to graduate. In terms of specialty in mind, he’s basically interested in a lot of things. But his personality is someone who likes seeing chaos and seeing diversity of aspects. So he’s initially leaning towards emergency medicine although he’s open to suggestions.

[27:25] Advice to Fellow DACA Recipients Thinking About Medical School

Cheril wishes to tell other DACA recipients who may be thinking about applying to medical school to reflect on their experiences in a positive way.

DACA recipients have to overcome a lot of emotional and mental stress of just being a part of that program. So think about all you’ve done and just have confidence in yourself that you can do this, and that you will do this. Ultimately, just rely on your support system and just keep chipping away at it.

[28:00] The Medical School Application

On the primary application, Cheril talked about his status as a DACA recipient and overcoming these challenges. He had talked to a premed advisor and asked her if that was okay to put down and he was very supportive of that.

For the secondaries. he only talked about DACA and his status, if it was applicable to that question or if it asked about what was the biggest thing that he had to overcome. Other than that, he would answer it just like any other questions.

Cheril didn’t apply for the SAP because his dad gave him financial support as well. His dad had worked his way up to owning a small business and he helped a lot with the application fees. He applied to 32 schools and out of five interview invites, he went on four of them. He got three acceptances and a hold.

Diversity played a pretty big part of him choosing which school to go to. He reached out to the admissions committee and talked to them about his status and his worries about them. He would ask them what they could do or how they would be able to support them. Thankfully, a lot of these medical schools were very receptive and very supportive. But at the end of the day, he just picked the school that he felt would be the greatest fit for him based on his DACA status, their support, and his personality too.

[31:57] Final Words of Wisdom

Do extracurricular activities that you really want to do, things you can talk about well, and be excited for.

“Pursue what you are passionate about and what you feel you want to do.”Click To Tweet

Even if you try different things, don’t worry. Just keep trying. It’s really helpful in the secondaries and in your extracurriculars to be able to talk about what impact these activities have given you.


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