Breaking Barriers: From First Gen to Future Doctor

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PMY 557: Breaking Barriers: From First Gen to Future Doctor

Session 557

Let’s listen to Antonio’s journey to becoming a physician while coming from a low-income, first-generation background. Be inspired as he talks about his struggles and successes in undergraduate school and medical school applications.

For more podcast resources to help you with your medical school journey and beyond, check out Meded Media.

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

His Interest in Becoming a Physician

Antonio’s journey towards becoming a doctor was not a straightforward path. It began in high school when he attended Dozer Living Medical High School in California, where he was exposed to the field of medicine and healthcare for the first time. Coming from a family with no background in medicine, this experience sparked his curiosity and set him on a path of exploration.

However, Antonio’s decision to pursue a career in medicine wasn’t immediate. Despite his early exposure to the field, he had doubts and a desire to explore other options. During college, he initially pursued a double major in pre-med and economics. But he encountered stumbling blocks along the way, particularly in challenging courses like General Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, and Biology. These difficulties led him to question whether becoming a doctor was the right path for him, and he started to feel discouraged.

As a result, Antonio’s focus shifted towards economics, and he graduated from college with a degree in econ. But even after completing his undergraduate studies, the desire to give medicine another try lingered within him. After taking a few gap years to reassess his goals, Antonio made the decision to return to medicine.

Overcoming Challenges as a First-Generation Student

Antonio’s journey towards becoming a doctor was marked by challenges and obstacles, especially as a first-generation low-income Mexican immigrant. Growing up in a family where his parents worked at Jack in the Box and Red Lobster, they didn’t fully grasp the concept of college or what it would mean to pursue a career in medicine.

Navigating Unfamiliar Territory

Lack of Understanding: Antonio’s parents, having worked in the service industry their whole lives, couldn’t fully comprehend the intricacies of higher education or the path to medical school. This lack of understanding posed a significant obstacle for Antonio as he ventured into uncharted territory.

The Importance of Office Hours: One example that resonates with Antonio is the concept of office hours. Many students may know that it’s a time to seek help from professors, but the actual purpose might not be explicitly explained. Antonio initially thought office hours were when professors handled administrative tasks, leaving him hesitant to approach them with questions or concerns.

First-Generation Student Struggles

Hidden Expectations: First-generation students often face hidden expectations and assumptions that their peers may take for granted. Antonio encountered situations where certain concepts seemed obvious to others but required extra effort for him to understand due to his unique background.

Navigating Resources: Antonio had to overcome the challenge of identifying and utilizing available resources. Whether it was understanding the purpose of office hours or discovering other support systems, these unfamiliar processes required time and adaptation.

Persistence and Growth

Despite these challenges, Antonio’s determination and resilience propelled him forward.

Seeking Support: Through perseverance, Antonio began to recognize the value of seeking support and guidance. He gradually embraced the opportunity to utilize office hours and connect with professors, realizing the assistance it could provide him on his academic journey.

Embracing the Journey: Antonio’s experiences as a first-generation student taught him the importance of embracing the journey and continually seeking knowledge and understanding. He learned to navigate the system, finding ways to bridge the gap between his background and the academic world.

The Power of Personal Connections in Navigating Medical Information

Oftentimes, the most impactful and crucial information we receive is obtained through personal relationships. It is through conversations and connections that we form that we gain access to invaluable knowledge. In the realm of medicine, however, there is still a need to increase representation from diverse backgrounds.

“Oftentimes, the information that’s really impactful, and really important, is the information that you get personally through relationships.”

The Need for Diversity in Healthcare

For low-income first-generation students, navigating the vast amount of medical information can be overwhelming. They strive to identify what truly matters and where to focus their attention. Finding trustworthy individuals to help them sift through this information can be challenging. It becomes difficult to determine who to turn to and establish a sense of trust.

Building Trust and Overcoming Historical Distrust

This challenge is further amplified by the historical factors that have contributed to the distrust between communities of color and the medical field. The repercussions of past events and practices continue to impact the relationship between marginalized communities and healthcare providers.

Addressing these issues requires engaging in deep and meaningful conversations about the historical context of medicine.

The Impact of Finding Mentors in the Path to Medical School

Antonio faced a universal challenge that many aspiring medical professionals encounter: the search for mentors. Like countless others, he embarked on his journey uncertain about his passion for medicine and unsure of how to excel in his classes.

Throughout his academic career, Antonio struggled to establish meaningful connections with individuals who could guide and support him. The process of finding mentors proved to be arduous and frustrating. Yet, he persevered, knowing that the guidance and wisdom of experienced healthcare professionals would be invaluable on his path to medical school.

The Transformational Power of Supportive Mentors

Antonio’s experience took a transformative turn when he started working at San Francisco General Hospital after graduating. There, he encountered a remarkable group of pediatricians who became his pillars of support and mentors. Their belief in his potential and their unwavering guidance transformed his perspective and alleviated many of his concerns.

With the backing of his mentors, Antonio realized that the academic hurdles that seemed insurmountable were conquerable. Armed with the knowledge that he had someone to turn to in times of doubt, he gained newfound confidence in his abilities and approach to his studies.

Overcoming Academic Concerns with Mentorship

The power of mentorship in Antonio’s journey was truly inexplicable. While challenges such as the notorious MCAT remained significant, having mentors who believed in his potential allowed him to address other obstacles with newfound resilience and determination. They provided not only academic guidance but also emotional support, empowering Antonio to face the rigorous demands of his premed journey.

Navigating Roadblocks and Delayed Paths to Medical School

In Antonio’s case, the journey to medical school took an unexpected detour. Graduating, he decided to pause and take the time to fully understand and believe in his passion for medicine. During this period, he explored alternative paths and pursued other opportunities that enriched his experiences and bolstered his confidence.

Navigating roadblocks and delays is a unique experience for each aspiring medical professional. It requires introspection, self-discovery, and the support of mentors who can provide guidance along the way. By finding mentors who believe in their potential, individuals like Antonio can overcome challenges, redefine priorities, and ultimately embark on the fulfilling path towards becoming healthcare professionals.

Overcoming MCAT Struggles: Antonio’s Journey to Medical School

Antonio’s path to medical school was not without its challenges. As a student at Stanford, he found himself in a different and more affluent community, surrounded by peers from backgrounds that felt unfamiliar to him. Adjusting to the culture of such an institution became a learning process in itself.

In his premed classes, Antonio encountered difficulties. He faced setbacks, needing to retake general chemistry and organic chemistry. There were moments of doubt and frustration, including receiving a W (withdrawal) in one of his courses. Furthermore, while taking general biology, he noticed that his performance was not up to par. In an attempt to salvage his grade, he changed his grading option to pass/no pass. However, it ultimately resulted in not passing the course.

Struggling in these essential classes, which are often deemed prerequisites for medical school, led Antonio to question his suitability for a career in medicine. Doubts crept in, making him wonder if pursuing medicine was the right path for him and if it was worth investing his time and effort.

Despite these discouraging experiences, Antonio’s journey did not end here. His determination and resilience pushed him forward, propelling him to seek support and guidance from mentors who believed in his potential. Through their assistance, Antonio discovered effective strategies for tackling the MCAT and overcoming his academic struggles.

“There are mentors out there, you just have to talk to a lot of people and you have to be willing to go through that rejection.”

Finding Resilience in the Face of Discouragement

Pursuing Research as a Premed Student

Despite doubts and uncertainties, Antonio remained determined to find opportunities that would bring him closer to his goal of applying to medical school.

Recognizing the value of research experience in the field of biology, he sought out a professor who had spoken at events focused on supporting first-generation and low-income students. Antonio believed that this professor might possess a deeper understanding of his background and perspective. Applying for a research position in the professor’s lab, Antonio eagerly awaited an interview. During the conversation, the professor appeared enthusiastic, discussing various aspects of the lab.

However, to Antonio’s dismay, at the end of the interview, the professor unexpectedly expressed that they were not currently seeking someone like him. This disheartening experience left Antonio feeling hurt and disillusioned, as he had hoped that this opportunity would serve as validation for his aspirations.

The Turning Point and Overcoming Discouragement

The professor’s rejection became a pivotal moment for Antonio. Feeling that this may have been his last chance for validation and support, he questioned whether pursuing medical school was the right path for him. The weight of discouragement began to overshadow his dreams and goals.

However, Antonio’s journey did not end here. Despite the setback, he found resilience within himself. Rather than allowing this experience to define him, Antonio decided to use it as motivation to prove his worth and capabilities. He refused to let a single rejection deter him from his passion for medicine.

Rediscovering the Power of Connection: Antonio’s Journey to Medicine

Exploring Career Options and the Disconnect

As Antonio delved into exploring various career options, he began to notice a recurring theme: a sense of detachment from people and their lived experiences. Conversations with economists, for example, left him feeling that valuable insights could often be gained from simple interactions with everyday individuals. Discoveries that seemed groundbreaking to some professionals were, in fact, already known to those directly involved in the respective industries.

This realization prompted Antonio to reflect on the significance of genuine connections and understanding in driving systemic change. He recognized that medicine offered an opportunity to forge meaningful relationships with patients and gain firsthand insight into their needs.

Rekindling the Desire for Connection

The more Antonio witnessed professionals taking a broader, systemic approach, the more he yearned for the ability to connect with patients on a deeper level. He realized that impactful change required not only expertise but also an empathetic understanding of individuals’ unique circumstances. This realization sparked an inkling within him, a rekindling of his interest in medicine.

Antonio recognized that by pursuing a career in medicine, he could work towards addressing systemic issues while maintaining a direct connection to the people whose lives would be impacted by his efforts.

“You need those connections if you’re going to drive systemic change, and make sure that you’re not losing sight of what people actually need.”

Embracing the Call to Medicine

Driven by the desire to make a tangible difference in people’s lives and maintain meaningful connections, Antonio began seriously considering a return to the medical field. The allure of medicine lay in its ability to bring together scientific knowledge, empathy, and social impact. Antonio saw medicine as a means to drive change, not only at an individual level but also at a larger societal scale.

Recognizing the critical importance of understanding patients’ needs firsthand, he felt compelled to embark on a journey that would allow him to bridge the gap between medical expertise and human connection.

“Postbacs are hard, especially from low income first generation students, because they’re expensive. And financial aid is typically not available for undergraduate level postbacs.”

Antonio’s Path to Postbacs and Financial Struggles

Upon deciding to pursue a return to medicine, Antonio found himself unfamiliar with the concept of postbaccalaureate programs. Seeking guidance, he reached out to friends and acquaintances, who introduced him to the idea.

Recognizing the importance of gathering information, he proactively contacted other postbac students in the Bay Area. These meetings proved invaluable as Antonio delved into discussions about his transcripts, the feasibility of medical school, and the necessary steps to achieve his goals. Through these conversations, he gained valuable perspectives and a clearer understanding of the journey ahead.

Navigating Financial Hurdles and Sacrifices

For low-income, first-generation students like Antonio, financial obstacles posed a significant challenge in pursuing postbaccalaureate studies. Unfortunately, undergraduate-level postbac programs often lack financial aid options. Antonio openly acknowledges that he did not find an optimal solution for this issue.

To make ends meet, he opted to work full-time while undertaking his postbac studies at UC Berkeley Extension. This demanding schedule required commuting for two hours, working eight-hour shifts at San Francisco General Hospital for clinical research, attending three-hour classes, and then commuting back home, all while dedicating his limited resources towards the costs of the program.

The financial strain even led to credit card debt accumulation. Antonio recognizes the urgent need for better solutions and increased support for low-income postbac students, emphasizing that the current circumstances are far from ideal.

The Need for Greater Support and Solutions

Antonio’s experience highlights the pressing need to address the financial challenges faced by low-income postbac students. While scholarships and limited resources exist, they are insufficient to alleviate the burdensome expenses associated with postbaccalaureate studies.

Antonio acknowledges that his approach of working tirelessly to make ends meet was not a viable long-term solution. He emphasizes the importance of finding better ways to support and uplift students from similar backgrounds, ensuring that financial barriers do not hinder their educational pursuits.

Reflection and Resourceful Relationships

Antonio recognized that improving his GPA and academic performance required a deep introspection and honesty about his shortcomings. He realized that facing these challenges head-on was essential for growth. By taking the time to reflect on his past academic experiences, he gained valuable insights into where he had fallen short and identified areas that needed improvement. This self-reflection became a crucial first step towards making positive changes.

Leveraging Resources and Building Relationships

Acknowledging the importance of seeking help and guidance, Antonio began to actively leverage available resources. Starting a new job provided him with the opportunity to connect with physicians who became invaluable mentors, offering both emotional support and academic guidance.

Understanding that academic success is not solely about individual effort, Antonio made a conscious effort to engage with his professors. Whether it was arriving early or staying late after class, he sought to establish personal connections by simply saying hello or initiating conversations. Antonio also bravely approached his professors, candidly discussing his past struggles and seeking advice on how to improve. These initial conversations paved the way for building meaningful relationships, fostering an environment of trust and support.

Transforming Pathways and Engagement

Engaging in open dialogues with professors played a vital role in Antonio’s academic journey. By sharing his challenges and seeking guidance, he effectively communicated his commitment to becoming a better student. These interactions not only helped Antonio gain valuable insights and strategies but also transformed his relationships with his professors.

Establishing a foundation of trust and understanding allowed him to receive personalized support, enabling him to excel academically. The newfound relationships with professors brought about a sense of belonging and engagement that had been absent during his undergraduate years.

The Interview Trail and the Acceptance

Simultaneously running a campaign for a local office in Antioch while completing his medical school application proved to be demanding for Antonio. Consequently, a significant portion of his secondaries were neglected. However, he ultimately managed to complete about half of them and secured two interviews.

Antonio’s journey took a thrilling turn when he received his first acceptance to the prestigious Mayo Clinic in Rochester. This pivotal moment occurred early in the year, providing him with a sense of security and relief. The prolonged waiting periods and uncertainties that often plague pre-med students were momentarily alleviated, as Antonio knew that regardless of the outcome elsewhere, he had secured a spot in medical school.

Balancing Medicine and Civic Engagement

In 2020, Antonio embarked on a journey to run for the school board in his hometown of Antioch, California. Recognizing the interconnectedness between education and health, Antonio aimed to address social determinants of health through his involvement in education policy. Despite the challenges of simultaneously applying to medical school and running against a 12-year incumbent, Antonio received encouragement from mentors to pursue both paths concurrently.

Against the odds, Antonio emerged victorious in the school board election while also securing a spot in medical school. This dual achievement highlighted the possibilities of combining healthcare and public service.

Antonio recognized the importance of physicians and healthcare providers engaging in policy-making processes, as many crucial decisions impact the healthcare community without reflecting their perspectives. Finding a balance between the demanding nature of medical professions and civic engagement is vital to ensure the healthcare system evolves effectively.

Breaking Silos, Fostering Engagement

Antonio advocates for creating opportunities for medical professionals to participate in various aspects of life beyond their clinical roles. By actively engaging in areas such as education policy, healthcare providers can influence how hospitals and clinics operate, ultimately benefiting patient care.

“We see a lot of really hot button political issues happening that really don’t reflect the views of the health care community a lot of the time.”

Failure to be present at the decision-making table leaves the healthcare profession vulnerable to external influences. Antonio’s journey serves as a testament to the importance of bridging the gap between medicine and civic engagement, ultimately shaping a more comprehensive and effective healthcare system.

Transforming Medical Education

Antonio’s journey in healthcare has led him to advocate for significant changes in medical school education. One area of focus is the implementation of a pass/fail system for Step 1 exams.

According to Antonio, this change should be taken even further by reducing high-stakes testing and creating a less stressful environment for students. By alleviating the pressure associated with exams, students would have more capacity to actively engage in advocating for change within the medical field.

Empowering Students for Advocacy

Antonio firmly believes that reducing the emphasis on high scores and fostering a less stressful environment in medical school would provide students with the opportunity to fight for meaningful change.

Serving on a school board, as Antonio currently does, becomes feasible when Step 1 is graded on a pass/fail basis. This shift allows students to allocate their energy towards making a difference rather than solely focusing on achieving top scores for residency placements.

By creating this space for students, medical education can empower future healthcare professionals to actively contribute to shaping the healthcare system.

Improving Healthcare Access

According to Antonio, addressing the issue of healthcare access is crucial. He believes that increasing the number of healthcare providers is essential to ensure that everyone can receive the healthcare they need.

Antonio acknowledges that this perspective may be controversial to some, as there can be resistance to expanding the number of physicians or broadening the scope of certain providers. However, he emphasizes that prioritizing patients’ ability to access healthcare should take precedence over other considerations. Antonio suggests that discussions about the healthcare system’s structure and provider roles should come after ensuring universal access to care.

Final Words of Wisdom for Struggling Students

Antonio, a role model for students facing self-doubt, offers words of wisdom to keep pushing forward. Regardless of background or circumstances, Antonio encourages students to persevere. He reminds them that self-doubt is a common experience and not limited to any specific path or identity. 

Antonio’s advice is to continue pushing forward, even in the face of challenges, reminding students that their unique journey holds value and potential. By embracing determination and resilience, students can overcome self-doubt and pursue their aspirations.

“Anyone can become a physician, if they want to become a physician.” 

Antonio believes that anyone can become a physician if they have the passion and desire to pursue this pathway. He emphasizes that the only difference among individuals may be the time it takes to achieve this goal. Antonio wants aspiring physicians to understand that the journey does not reflect their worth, skills, or abilities.

Everyone faces unique struggles and obstacles along the way, but he firmly believes that the door to becoming a physician is never truly closed. It may require creativity, additional time, and utilizing available resources, but with perseverance and a support system, it is possible to overcome challenges and achieve one’s aspirations. Antonio encourages individuals not to undertake this journey alone, emphasizing the importance of seeking support and guidance throughout the process.


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