Back to School Realness: Thriving as a Latinx Pre-med

Back to School Realness: Thriving as a Latinx Pre-med

Four years ago, I was a sophomore starting my first semester of organic chemistry. As the beginning of the semester approached, I began feeling uneasy. “Would this year be different than the one before?”, I pondered. The year before I had taken two semesters of general chemistry with little success. In the spring, I had also dropped molecular biology. Not surprisingly, I soon dropped organic chemistry in fear of failing.

Fast forward to today. I am now a Lab Teaching Assistant (TA) for organic chemistry. After successfully retaking general chemistry, biology, and organic chemistry through a pre-med post-baccalaureate (post-bacc) program, I was asked to TA. I’ve proven to myself and admissions committees that I can be successful in the classes that once held me back.

But each new school year, I feel the same feeling of uneasiness I felt four years ago. The fear, anxiety, and stress I experienced as a lost pre-med with little direction resurface. Having not been successful the first time taking these courses, I tend to doubt myself and my academic capabilities, even now as I’ve traversed the roadblocks that once kept me from accomplishing my goal of becoming a physician.

As a pre-med, this sense of unease is not uncommon. And as a Latinx and/or first-generation college student, this is especially not uncommon given the lack of resources and guidance in nuestra comunidad. Moreover, according to the American Council on Education, only 38% of Hispanics aged 18 to 24 were enrolled in college in 2016. Of those students, nearly half were the first in their family to go to college, according to Excelencia in Education. With a small percentage going on to college, and most being the first in their families to attend college, the number of mentors from similar backgrounds is low and guidance is scarce.

According to the American Council on Education, about 70% of Latino undergraduates hail from families in the bottom half of earners, requiring many to work while attending school. Having to work minimizes available study time and all pre-meds know study time is typically proportional to doing well in a class. For instance, only 56% of Hispanic students who start at public four-year institutions finish within six years compared to 71% of white students and 76% of Asian students. This number increases to 82% of Hispanic students when they are exclusively full-time students.

Many Latinx students even take a year off because of this stress and culture shock in a phenomenon called “the Brown sabbatical.” According to The Stripes Magazine, this term describes the experience of first-generation, low-income Latinx students who take time off. Unfortunately, this year seldom makes a difference as the time away from school does not destroy or minimize the barriers affecting the students who take a leave of absence.

Overall, this abundance of stress and poor academic performance due to a lack of guidance, time, and resources deter many from pursuing medicine as grades, test scores, and extracurriculars are extremely dependent on these same things. In 2016, only 7.1% of students that completed a graduate degree were Hispanic, compared to 18% of the general population. And in the 2019-2020 academic year, only 6.5% of students admitted to medical school were Hispanic, according to the Association of American Medical College (AAMC).

Understanding the statistics and structural violence at play helps paint a picture of the Latinx college experience: there are few of us and many obstacles to overcome with little help along the way. Therefore, we at Latinx en Medicina want to pass along some useful information and wisdom from current, Latinx medical students that can help pre-med students be successful and alleviate the stress and anxiety that come with each new year.

Josue Chirino is a Mexican American from Texas. After excelling in his pre-medical classes at Princeton University, Josue was accepted to several medical schools upon graduation. Today, he is a second-year medical student at Harvard Medical School. Being Latinx, a first-generation student, and coming from a low-income background, Josue offers advice to other pre-med Latinx students in similar positions emphasizing the importance of peer mentorship, utilizing available resources, and knowing when to take advice seriously.

“Find peer mentors that you trust and have gone through what you are planning to do yourself, and ask them any and all questions that you can think of. Probably the best resources I had in college were friends and upperclassmen who were also pre-med and had already taken the classes I needed to take or applied to the programs that I wanted to apply to. Of course, faculty and counselors are invaluable resources as well, but what makes peer mentors unique is their transparency and candor,” Josue said.

“Peer mentors, by definition, are closer to you in experience and often age, so they are more likely to tell you something how it is. They can tell you which classes are the toughest, how to study for the MCAT, how to get letters of recommendation from professors, and how to survive being a pre-med in general. Find your people, work towards creating a collaborative environment among them, and remember to pay it forward when you become a wise upperclassman yourself.”

Josue also highlighted the importance of understanding the resources available to you. “Make use of your college or university’s resources. I went to a pretty low-funded public high school before going to college, so I wasn’t used to having resources like tutoring or office hours available to me on demand. Find out what your college or university offers in terms of academic resources, and don’t be afraid to use them. Reaching out for help is not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of maturity and shows a true desire to want to better yourself.”

Taking advice can be crucial, but some advice just isn’t helpful. “Throughout college and during your application cycle, you will hear tons of advice from many different people about what you’re doing right, what you’re doing wrong, and what you should or shouldn’t be doing. Always listen to the advice that people are giving you, but remember that you know yourself best and that at the end of the day, you will have to live with whatever decision you make. Therefore, you should take every piece of advice with a grain of salt, and always make sure that you’re doing what makes you happy.”

However, not all students take a straight path to medicine. Julisa Nuñez is a second year medical student and Mexican American at Georgetown University School of Medicine from Richmond, California. After finishing undergrad at Belmont University, Julisa completed several programs, including a masters degree and two pre-med post-baccs, to improve her grades and be well prepared to apply to medical school. In undergrad, Julisa struggled to find peers that looked like her or had much in common with her.

“People in my classes had parents that were doctors, my parents went to elementary school.” Julisa found study buddies that she could relate to that eventually became her friends. She encourages Latinx pre-meds to do the same. Additionally, Julisa encourages pre-meds to not be afraid to ask for help. “I was scared to ask for help because I was in a predominantly white institution. I was scared to ask questions because I felt inferior and didn’t want to prove their stereotypes right.” But not asking questions only holds pre-meds back, so do not be scared to be vulnerable.

The stress of perfection is also a recurring theme. Remember that you are not just your grades. Julisa reminds us that while it’s always important to try to do better, you do not need to have perfect grades to get accepted to medical school and become an amazing doctor. Getting perfect grades is not worth stressing yourself out and being depressed. Your mental and physical health are more important!

Bryan Torres is a Mexican American first-year medical student at Tulane University School of Medicine from Phoenix, Arizona. Similar to Julisa, Bryan did a post-bacc and masters program to improve his grades and increase his chances of getting accepted to medical school after his undergraduate studies at the University of Arizona. During high school, Bryan was a straight-A student. However, he quickly learned that what worked for him in high school, would not work to secure the same grades in college. He encourages students to change study techniques upon transitioning to college because it really is an entirely different environment. 

He also encourages students to “start building.” This means developing skills that do not just allow you to survive as a pre-med, but to thrive. These skills include swallowing your pride and asking for help. If tutoring services are offered on campus, don’t be ashamed to attend them. Go to office hours and ask the professor for help. Don’t be afraid to connect with your peers or ask them for help either. Even drinking coffee is a skill!

After developing these skills, Bryan jetted off to graduate school, but felt the same unease I do each new school year. He feared “messing up” a second time, but knew he had to trust himself and who he had become as a student. “I knew I had earned and deserved to be there,” he said. “I was a better student going into grad school than going into college.” This self-confidence is exactly the right attitude to erase the anxiety and stress so many pre-med face. He thought, “I don’t have to excel in everything as long as I put my best foot forward.”

As you progress in education, socio-economic and racial representation decreases. Therefore, Bryan encourages students to find mentors. “You can connect with mentors that want to help that are from different schools or organizations, and even social media.” Bryan also mentors younger students as a humble reminder of who he was and how far he’s come. Remember to return the favor of mentoring not just at the end of your journey, but throughout it. Helping the next generation can remind you of the obstacles you’ve overcome, enabling you to find inspiration in yourself and have confidence for the remaining ones ahead.

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