My name is Michelle DeJesus and I am a pediatric occupational therapist from Florida. Like many immigrant stories, my parents overcame many obstacles in order to live in this country to provide a better life for their children. My father worked several odd jobs during his initial years here. He was a porter for a car dealership, a line-cook at Taco Bell and sold admission tickets at Six Flags. He worked all these jobs AFTER obtaining his medical degree from the Dominican Republic. Yes, my father became a doctor, but sacrificed to work a minimum wage job in the U.S. so that his three kids could have a better life in a safer place. Eventually, all of his dedication paid off as he was able to pass the board exam to become a physician assistant in this country. However, it’s to no one’s surprise that he imparted his love for medicine onto his kids, who ultimately went on to pursue their own career within the healthcare field.
My father is Puerto Rican and my mother is Venezuelan. Growing up with this mix of Caribbean and South American culture, I was fortunate to have been immersed in a such a strong and incredibly warm environment that emphasized the importance of unity. Like many Latinos, I was raised with the close presence of extended family who helped to enrich and shape not only my upbringing, but also my personal values and belief system. (¡Gracias Abuelo, Abuela, Tia, y Tio!)
While I frequently reflect on the positive impact that my culture has made on my life, I must be transparent and admit that I have encountered many hardships as a Latina pursuing higher education here in the U.S. I’ve experienced financial burden and many adversities which have led me to accrue a hefty balance of graduate school debt, despite applying for a multitude of scholarships.
I became aware of the lack of representation of Latinos and minorities within my own profession, as well within the healthcare industry in general. I specifically remember attending a national occupational therapy conference during my first year of graduate school, and searching through the crowds of presenters for one person that looked somewhat like me. Needless to say, I left the conference disappointed and after researching the statistics, I discovered that minorities make up less than 11% of occupational therapists in the United States.
Initially, this statistic was frustrating beyond belief. However, John Adams once said to view each problem as an opportunity in disguise. It was with this reframing of thought that I began to take actionable steps towards change. I became a diversity and inclusion advocate as a grad student and led student/faculty discussions on addressing diversity on campus. As a therapist, I joined a professional organization to foster mentorship opportunities for minority students, as well as a coalition to address diversity and inclusion issues within the occupational therapy profession. This past year, I began blogging my experiences as a minority in healthcare and shedding light on the achievements of other occupational therapists from minority backgrounds to let others know that we are out here and ¡𝙎𝙞 𝙎𝙚 𝙋𝙪𝙚𝙙𝙚!
Overall, I’m immensely orgullosa of my Latin roots, especially as a pediatric occupational therapist in Miami, as it allows me to communicate with many patients and families where Spanish is their first language. Many of the parents and children I work with will actually sigh in relief when I ask whether they prefer to speak Spanish with me. It honestly brings me back to my experiences as a child when I would translate for my mother when accompanying her to the doctor or the grocery store. The anxiety, frustration, and helplessness that these families feel when trying to communicate with healthcare professionals, has personally inspired me to continue to advocate for them, as well as serve as a representative to my hermanos y hermanas in underrepresented minority groups pursuing a career in healthcare.