Pioneering Medicine as a First-Generation Latina Student

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PMY 566: Pioneering Medicine as a First-Generation Latina Student

Session 566

Tabitha is a first-generation Latina student pursuing a career as a physician. Today, she talks about her experiences overcoming obstacles and finding support and mentors along the path to medical school.

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.

Interest in Becoming a Physician

Tabitha first realized she wanted to be a doctor in middle school when she was applying to high schools. She chose to apply to a vocational high school that had a MediCal (medical) program. Being in this program and learning about medicine in high school helped her realize her passion for becoming a physician. She was able to gain early patient experience through certifications as a certified nursing assistant and EMT during her high school years, which further solidified her interest in pursuing a career in medicine.

Overcoming Self-Doubt as a First-Generation Latina

Tabitha says she often had many doubts growing up. She mentions having counselors who told her it would be impossible to become a doctor given her background. It wasn’t until college that she met another medical student who looked like her and came from a similar upbringing, which helped guide her through the process. She says self-doubt is very common among minority students in her position.

“There’s only 6% of us, Latino physicians in the country, which is insane.” 

Tabitha says that her grandmother’s legacy inspired and motivated her to continue pursuing her goal of becoming a doctor. She saw how her grandmother always cared for others and wanted to follow in her footsteps.

She also found encouragement from participating in her college’s health professions learning program. It provided weekly meetings and speakers that were constantly pushing and motivating the students.

Tabitha’s Guiding Light: The SHPEP Summer Program

The program that Tabitha participated in was called SHPEP (Summer Health Professions Education Program). It is also sometimes referred to as SHP or “ship” for short. This program is run by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and administered through the AAMC. It provided Tabitha with exposure, support, and guidance as an underrepresented minority student pursuing a career in healthcare. It helped connect her with mentors and her current medical school. She recommends similar pipeline programs to other students seeking guidance and community.

Her Biggest Obstacle as a Premed

The hardest part of Tabitha’s premed process was studying for and taking the MCAT exam. She says she has always struggled with standardized tests. Preparing for the MCAT was very difficult for her. The first time she took it, her score was not high enough, even though she had already applied to medical schools. She had to retake the exam the following year, which caused her to have to reapply to medical schools as well. The MCAT presented the biggest obstacle for her in her journey to medical school.

Why Race Plays a Role in MCAT Scores

Tabitha believes that race is such a big factor in MCAT scores because minority students often do not have the same educational opportunities and resources as white students. As the first in her family to pursue this career path, she did not have parents or mentors to guide her academically from a young age. She also notes that minority students may come from school systems that were not as strong.

“Minorities often do struggle with these standardized exams.”

Financial barriers prevented her from accessing tutoring or expensive MCAT prep programs. This lack of early academic preparation and support contributes to lower average scores on standardized tests like the MCAT for underrepresented groups.

The Lingering Effects of Redlining

Tabitha acknowledges that socioeconomic status is really the core issue, beyond just race alone. She notes that in the U.S., where students go to school depends heavily on home values and locations due to historical practices like redlining that segregated communities. This segregation based on race and income led to inequitable school funding between districts. 

She recognizes that growing up in an underfunded school district without the same educational opportunities as those in wealthier, often whiter districts has a significant impact on one’s educational foundation and upbringing from a young age. Where one attends school plays a huge role in shaping academic preparation and opportunities.

The Lifeline of Fee Assistance

Tabitha says she was fortunate to be able to apply for Fee Assistance Program, which allowed her to apply to 20 medical schools for free and take the MCAT at a discounted rate. This helped alleviate the financial burden of reapplying.

She also credits the encouragement and support of people in her life, like her mentor who pushed her to keep moving forward instead of dwelling on her setback. Her mentor told her this experience happens and to focus on improving going forward. It was this social support that ultimately gave Tabitha the encouragement she needed to go through the difficult process of retaking the MCAT and reapplying to medical school.

How Focused CARS Practice Helped Raise Tabitha’s MCAT Score

When Tabitha retook the MCAT, she focused her strategy on improving her score in the CARS section. Since English was not her first language, she struggled most with CARS. She used Jack Westin / The MCAT CARS podcast religiously, printing out the materials and going through them line-by-line. This targeted practice helped strengthen her CARS skills. She also made sure to do more practice problems specifically for CARS this time around. This strategic focus on her weakness led to a higher overall MCAT score and ultimately, acceptance to medical school.

A Strategic Overhaul: How Tabitha Pinpointed Her MCAT as the Key to Medical School Acceptance

Tabitha met with an admissions advisor from her top choice medical schools to do a thorough evaluation of her entire application. The advisor determined that her clinical experience as an EMT and CNA was strong and that her GPA was adequate. They agreed the key area for improvement was her MCAT score.

Rather than pursuing additional activities like a master’s degree, Tabitha focused her efforts on strengthening the one aspect of her application that needed the most work – achieving a higher MCAT score to boost her competitiveness for admission.

How Multiple Interviews and an Acceptance Phone Call Made Tabitha’s Dream a Reality

When Tabitha received her first interview invitation after reapplying, she felt immense relief knowing her hard work had paid off. She had prepared thoroughly for interviews by reading advice books and practicing mock interviews with classmates. The real interview went well according to Tabitha, who said interviews are usually conversational rather than intimidating.

After receiving several more interviews, her dream was realized when she got an acceptance email while traveling. But the most special moment was the phone call from the Dean, who praised her impressive journey and resilience overcoming obstacles. Hearing how impressed they were validated all her efforts and struggles, making it an unforgettable celebration with her family.

Staying Grounded in Your Purpose

Tabitha advises students pursuing their goal of becoming the first doctor in their family to always remember their “why”. She says it will be difficult as a trailblazer, but it is important to remember the impact they will have on their community and the legacy they will build for their future family.

Tabitha emphasizes that despite obstacles, all of the experiences from their upbringing will make them a better physician. She encourages students to stay grounded in their motivation to open doors of opportunity for others and improve health disparities. Remembering their larger purpose can help sustain students through challenges along their path.

“Although you might not come from an ideal upbringing… all of those experiences are what’s going to make you a better physician.”

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome in Medical School

When Tabitha first started medical school, she struggled greatly with imposter syndrome due to coming from a minority and first-generation background. She felt different from many of her classmates who did not share her upbringing. However, having classmates and faculty who could relate to her experiences helped tremendously.

She also found support through her school’s Latino Medical Student Association chapter. Being in an environment with others like her helped Tabitha feel more grounded and like she belonged. Having a community of peers and mentors who understood her background was very important in helping her successfully transition into medical school.

Finding Purpose and Community

Being involved in her medical school’s Latino Medical Student Association chapter greatly helped Tabitha as a student. It provided her with a support system of peers also from underrepresented backgrounds.

The organization helped connect her to mentors and allowed her to establish important relationships. It inspired her and kept her motivated towards her goal of improving healthcare for her community.

Being a part of LMSA also gave Tabitha leadership opportunities where she could now guide and mentor other students. Being involved in this group grounded her and reminded her that she belonged in medical school. It fostered a sense of purpose and commitment to increasing diversity in medicine.

Her Journey Through Her Transitions

Adjusting to the Rigors of Medical School Coursework

According to Tabitha, the hardest part of the transition from pre-clinical to clinical years of medical school was adjusting to the immense amount of information she needed to learn in a short period of time. The volume of material covered in just a few weeks far exceeded what she was used to in undergraduate courses. 

On top of that, her medical school scheduled exams frequently. Keeping up with the fast pace while retaining everything thoroughly was challenging. She advises future students to incorporate board exam preparation early on to help smooth the transition to clinicals.

The Transition to Her Clinical Years

Tabitha loved transitioning to the clinical years of medical school. She found it much more fulfilling and enjoyable because she was finally able to directly interact with and care for patients.

Seeing the positive impact she could have on patients through her work solidified why she wanted to become a physician. Attending a school where she could serve an underserved population similar to her own community through Spanish-speaking patients helped her feel grounded.

The clinical experience eased her imposter syndrome by demonstrating how her background made her well-suited to care for certain patients.

Leveling the Playing Field: Promoting Access to Support Programs for Underrepresented Medical Students

To make the path to medical school more equitable, Tabitha believes it is important to spread awareness of programs designed to support underrepresented minority students. These include pipeline programs like SHPEP that provide mentorship, guidance and sometimes financial assistance. She also advocates sharing information about fee assistance programs that can cover application costs.

Increasing access to free or low-cost MCAT preparation resources would help level the playing field as well. By publicizing existing resources, more students from disadvantaged backgrounds can learn about opportunities to ease their financial burden and increase their chances of acceptance into medical school.

Communicating Changes to Family for Medical School

Tabitha recommends having open and honest conversations with parents to help them understand the process and sacrifices required to achieve their dream of becoming a doctor. It may take time for parents who are unfamiliar with the medical education system to comprehend concepts like gap years.

Explain how short-term reductions in responsibilities or financial contributions will ultimately benefit the whole family in the long run once a stable career and income are established. Reassure parents that their sacrifices are helping fulfill an important purpose of serving the community can help gain support. Communication, patience and relating it back to shared values of helping family are key to navigating this transition.

Final Words of Wisdom

For students pursuing their dream of becoming the first doctor in their family, Tabitha’s final words of wisdom are to get involved in organizations like the Latino Medical Student Association and Student National Medical Association. These groups are excellent resources to find mentors who can guide students through the application process and relate to their experiences. She emphasizes that having a mentor is extremely important for support.

Tabitha also encourages students to stay determined and remember why they have embarked on this challenging journey. Though the path is difficult as a trailblazer, remaining grounded in their motivation to help their community will help sustain students to the end.


Summer Health Professional Education Program (SHPEP)

Fee Assistance Program

Latino Medical Student Association

Student National Medical Association

Meded Media

Blueprint MCAT

Jack Westin / The MCAT CARS podcast