Diversity Matters: Advice from first-generation college students who made it to med school
Juan Caceres learned the value of hard work from a young age. After emigrating with his parents from their native Colombia at age 6, the family elders held multiple service-industry jobs to make ends meet.
His mother and father both had completed some college, but the foreign credits were invalid in Florida, where the couple settled. Still, they nurtured their child’s education and encouraged him to dream big. But the Caceres family knew little about the application process — insight that some teenagers might take for granted.
“Nobody had any idea how to figure out all the obstacles,” said Caceres, now 23 and a rising M2 at the U-M Medical School. “I didn’t learn about the SAT until my junior year of high school.”
And that was just for undergraduate education, not the far bigger challenge of medical school.
Nicole Honey faced a knowledge gap when preparing for that next step after college graduation. She recalled telling her mother, a business owner who grew up on a Native American reservation in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, of her apprehensiveness about spending the next decade in training to become a doctor.
Her mom’s reply: “Oh, isn’t med school only a few years?”
“I didn’t know any physicians other than my pediatrician,” said Honey, 25, also a rising M2 at U-M.
From a town of 900 in rural Montana, Bridger Rodoni had a similar experience. His family, though wholly supportive, couldn’t advise him. It didn’t stop Rodoni and other first-generation peers at U-M from sharing a similar sentiment: With hard work and the help of others, you can succeed.
“Medical school definitely wasn’t a situation where the finances or my background or anything else was going to keep me out,” said the 23-year-old Rodoni, who will be starting his M2 year in September.
Caceres, Honey and Rodoni spoke recently about their experiences. Here’s advice they offer to fellow first-generation students:
Think ahead, if possible: Having an early interest in medicine — even if a career goal isn’t immediately clear — has value. Caceres, for instance, remembered interpreting for his parents in Spanish when they would visit the doctor.
“I saw a lot of disparities in my community,” he said.
That memory resurfaced when Caceres went to study biology at Emory University, where he volunteered with an interpreting club that aided Spanish-speaking patients. He has since founded a similar club at Michigan.
For Honey, a former U-M undergraduate student-athlete, a conversation about careers with her diving coach helped solidify her interest in working with patients.
“He said, ‘You don’t want to be in a lab; you like people too much,’” recalled Honey, who earned a kinesiology degree.
Still, knowing your path isn’t mandatory.
Rodoni, a football player at Northern Arizona University, planned to become an athletic trainer. But a knee injury — and the resulting experience with surgeons — compelled Rodoni to change his major to biological sciences and fostered new ambitions of becoming a doctor.
“Before, it wasn’t even a thought in my head,” he said.
Seek mentors of all stripes: Applying to medical school takes a village. As Caceres moved through his undergrad education, he amassed a network of professors, advisers and upperclassmen who shared knowledge and encouragement about the process.
One mentor told him to camp outside a faculty member’s office to get a letter of recommendation for a competitive summer program for pre-med students. Caceres also networked online, fostering ties with other med students and doctors.
Rodoni looked to several doctors for guidance, as well as a faculty member who challenged him to excel on a research project on exercise and aging.
Honey, who found valuable insight via a U-M program that partners the college’s athletes with on-campus medical mentors, maintains that students still must make the first move: “You really have to reach out, try to find resources and pick as many brains as you can.”
Learn from your classmates: Although the environment at U-M’s medical school is highly collaborative, first-generation students have a unique resource in each other.
“Power forms in unity,” said Caceres, a member of several Hispanic student groups at Emory. “Look for people in your same situation. You can push each other up.”
But casting a wider net also has value.
Said Honey: “Meeting people who aren’t first-generation students or have older siblings who are doctors — or people who have already applied and understand how it works — is important.”
Dropping an “everyone for themselves” mentality is crucial in med school, Rodoni added.
Pursue research and extracurriculars: Sure, undergrads need to spend plenty of time hitting the books. But activities and independent lab work tied to health and other pursuits can help foster direction and boost a student’s profile when applying to medical school.
That was key for Honey, who worried at first that her sporting commitments would overshadow her resume. “People encouraged me to keep pursuing it because medical schools are looking for applicants with passion, like athletes.”
Still, her research work with a Michigan OB-GYN, to whom she connected via U-M’s student-athlete mentorship program, was critical.
Caceres also credited his laboratory and extracurricular activities for helping him excel. Many medical schools asked him about his background as a medical interpreter during the interview process.
Now that he’s advising a similar group at Michigan, the doctor-to-be takes pride in planting the seeds for others to succeed — as well as assisting a disadvantaged patient population that, in part, guided him to this career path.
That, Caceres said, embodies the importance of first-generation med students looking out for their own: “A big part of this is knowing that you can’t do it all by yourself.”
For more stories like this one, check out the Michigan Health Lab blog.