My New American Experience
First-gen graduate speaks on his journey to medical school
Thursday, November 19, 2020
victor rodriguez wearing white coat with text My New American Experience

“Ni de aquí, ni de allá” is a Spanish phrase meaning “neither from here nor there.” Growing up as a first-generation Mexican-American, I feel like there is no better way to describe the outsider feeling I experienced while growing up. I was born in a supportive Californian community, where most people shared my background. However, I faced an identity crisis when my family moved to Texas to be closer to Mexico and take care of my grandmother’s worsening diabetes. Unbeknownst to me, this change was the start of my first-generation American narrative that would guide my passions for bridging gaps in health care among underserved populations.

When I started third grade in Texas, my school quickly categorized me as an English as a Second Language (ESL) student, despite my English proficiency. At the time, I did not know the difference, because my classmates looked and spoke like me. However, my environment was completely different outside of the classroom. I recall automatically speaking Spanish to anyone who had Hispanic features, something frowned upon in my new Texan home. Anytime I spoke Spanish outside my class, the non-ESL teachers would get frustrated and quickly inform me that it was rude to speak Spanish around others. That was when I first experienced discrimination, but I was too young to realize it. After third grade, the views I had about my heritage changed, and I began denying my Mexican background.

Victor Rodriguez '14 with his family

As I began middle school, things began changing again, and I became more confused about my feelings towards my heritage. I also noticed that I was set back educationally: Before starting sixth grade, I asked to join pre-AP courses, but my school placed me into the regular classroom setting. This was perplexing, as I was an A student. Fortunately, my Hispanic math teacher, Ms. Gonzalez, vouched for me to be placed in the advanced courses after I excelled in her class.

As I navigated my cultural and educational disorientation in middle and high school, it was soon time to think about college. Most of my peers in the advanced classes came from affluent homes and had parents or siblings who held degrees. My classmates had the resources to go to college. I had the opposite experience, with an unsupportive father who believed I could get into college, but feared how he would afford it, and thus would sometimes discourage me.

But my situation made me determined to succeed. In coming to the U.S., my parents had sacrificed so much. My father grew up in a humble home—made up of clay, sticks, and straw—in rural Mexico, where he repeated third grade because it was the best education his village had to offer. My mother faced sexism throughout her life, being denied education or a career by her father, who gladly gave resources to his sons. I did not want their efforts to be in vain.

Most of my teachers were supportive of my endeavors. I recall receiving the best advice from my first-generation Mexican-American junior-year English teacher. He told me about his struggles growing up along the Texas-Mexico border and his journey to college. With his letter of recommendation, Trinity University accepted me with a substantial scholarship that alleviated my parents’ economic burden.

Trinity welcomed me to Summer Bridge, a supportive program for first-generation and underrepresented students. My class was the first cohort, and I was relieved knowing I had local support from other staff that understood the struggles of being a first-generation college student. I was also later inducted into the McNair Scholars Program, a national program dedicated to helping first-generation college students pursue graduate degrees.

I did not realize how important these support groups were until I noticed the lack of diversity on campus and the economic differences between other students and my family. My peers would often comment on how busy my schedule was, but they did not know that I had two or three part-time jobs each semester to support myself, while they had hours of free time during the day. However, through hard work and dedication, I graduated with two degrees and three majors in four years—aiming to pursue a career path where I could help first-generation and underrepresented Americans in health care.

Victor Rodriguez '14 with his family at his Trinity graduation.

I decided to attend Texas A&M University School of Public Health in McAllen, Texas, located along the Texas-Mexico border. The master’s program allowed me to see the vast disparities in Latinx health care. I worked on a diabetes intervention project, where I met many individuals who had a hard time accessing care because of language barriers, socioeconomic status, and immigration status. I was disheartened seeing people with uncontrolled diabetes because of their limited access to quality health care. Still, I knew that my small part offered them hope and a service that they would otherwise not have.

Without all these experiences, I would not be where I am today. I was accepted into medical school at the Texas A&M University College of Medicine, where Latinx students are underrepresented. In 2015, about 4.6% of medical graduates identified as Hispanic or Latinx, disproportionate to the country’s population (estimated today at 18.3%). Medical graduates are significantly underrepresented in states like Texas or California, where the populations are almost 40 percent Hispanic. Getting into medical school was a difficult journey, but I quickly realized I was not alone. I met several students on the interview trail and in medical school that talked about a similar burden of being underrepresented in medicine, coming from a lower socioeconomic status, or being the first to become a doctor in their family. We were connected by our backgrounds to push for change, whether it be to broaden the diversity in our field or work in the community to help the village that raised us.

I sought opportunities to make a change where I could. First, through the Latino Medical Student Association (LMSA) and later as a member of the medical school admissions committee. I have met many premedical students that share my story, struggling through unknown paths to reach their dreams. With my knowledge of admissions and a great network of colleagues in LMSA, I have been able to work as a mentor to help create the next generation of a diverse workforce. I, along with my friend Munir Buhaya, helped to create a phenomenal high school event for the 2019 LMSA national conference in Lubbock, Texas, where we had almost 200 participants. Because my colleagues saw my passion for mentorship, I was voted to serve as the southwest regional co-director-elect and national vice president of LMSA.

Victor Rodriguez '14 practices clinical exam skills at the Texas A&M University College of Medicine.

During my time in medical school, I have also tried to be involved in health policy and advocacy. Inspired by my Trinity best friend, Helene Nepomuceno ’14, I also became involved with the American Medical Association. Helene, now Dr. Nepomuceno, served as chair of the Medical Student Section. There, she was a strong leader in health care advocacy, pushing for policy to address health issues in our nation. With my background in public health and knowledge of health disparities at the border, I work with other students on creating and reviewing policy that affects minority populations in our country.

After feeling like an outsider throughout my upbringing, I was grateful to encounter so many people that shared similar struggles and successes in being a first-generation American. They inspire me to continue finding ways of bridging gaps in health care to reach equity. Through this journey, I try to make small contributions where I can, paying it forward to those who have helped me previously—as I hope future generations will do. As I continue on through my medical education, I aspire to become a physician, where I can work with individuals burdened with disease but also work to prevent illnesses in areas with people who cannot afford the cost of health care.

Victor H. Rodriguez '14 is a student at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health in McAllen, Texas.

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