“Today stop and take a look at you. Be proud of all that you do and all that you are” – Heather Stillufsen
I don’t have successful doctor parents like many of my pre-med peers. I grew up underprivileged. My parents gave me what they could and I was always grateful. I didn’t know what I was missing. We lived in a lower-middle-class neighborhood, I went to the public school and I didn’t get a good education. In my town, no one spoke of college or what you wanted to be when you grew up because nothing great was expected of us. In my home no one ever said you could grow up to do great things. The norm was that we did not speak about school and no one kept up with my grades. No one took an interest in my education, so I didn’t care about my education either. How I regret that now. I think it would have made such a difference in my life.
Disaster struck my family when I was in the fifth grade. My father was incarcerated for a crime he committed while under the influence of drugs. He had struggled with substance abuse all his life, and unfortunately through most of my childhood. My mother worked very hard and struggled to keep us afloat but the stress became too much. She stopped going to work and began suffering with mental health issues. Two years later, child protective services intervened. Unfortunately my sister and I were not able to stay together. I was sent to live with my older sister and her husband.
Needless to say I found it very hard to cope without my parents and I was a mess during my middle school years. My teachers and the school counselor worried I would be pregnant or worse by the time I reached the end of 8th grade. I struggled to process and accept everything that I was going through. Now that I’m older, I realize that my mother was sick and wasn’t able to cope. While I wish things could have been different, today I realize that this painful part of my life has led me to the person I’ve become. I appreciate things more and I learned how to forgive. I think it will help me to be a better informed and more compassionate doctor in the future.
When I entered high School, I kept making one bad decision after another. Somehow my sister’s husband seemed to believe in me. He saw a better future for me, telling me that I could do better. But I wasn’t ready to change. I had decided it was easier not trying because I didn’t believe I could do better. I couldn’t understand why he was wasting his time on me. In the end, I dropped out of school and floated through life for a while.
Then I turned 18, and I wanted to work but I found that I couldn’t find a job. So I took the first step and got my GED. I started working a dead end job and hated every second of every day I was there. But it propelled me to sign up for classes at my local community college. “What is your major of focus?” the advisor asked, since they had to put something down. I was stumped. Although I’d never deeply thought about it, I put pre-med, because why not? I’d always admired doctors as if they were saints or angels. To me they are the modern day heroes.
Time passed while I took two classes at a time, only earning average grades. I thought to myself, what am I doing? I’ll never finish college never mind get into medical school. I didn’t have a single drop of belief or confidence in myself so I looked for a more attainable goal. This led me to get my CNA (certified nursing assistant). I breezed through the course, quit my dead-end job and started working at a nursing home. What an awakening that was for me! I loved my job and my coworkers; it was a transformative experience. My nurse friends encouraged me to go further in nursing, so I did. I started taking pre-requisite classes and I found that I had a love for science. Who would have thought I’d be good at science? I left the job at the nursing home to work at a hospital and there I started working with my heroes: doctors. I watched them walking tall and proud, almost imagining them in moving down the hallway in slow motion. But, still, I didn’t pursue my dream of becoming a doctor… though now my desire to become a physician was crystal clear.
I kept working and moving forward. I continued to complete the prerequisites to become a registered nurse. And I took an even bigger step: I told my family. For the first time I could tell that they were proud of me. But when I was a semester away from applying to nursing school, instead of happiness I felt empty and scared. I felt I couldn’t confide in anyone that what I really wanted was to become a doctor. I felt ashamed and fearful that I would be put down like I felt I had been in the past. But, if I didn’t try to become a doctor I felt it would always haunt me I felt compelled, like breathing. Your body knows you have to breathe; it doesn’t give you a choice. It compels you. That is how I felt about becoming a doctor.
I realized I needed to take the leap regardless of my fears and insecurities. So I went and formally changed my degree plan and then told my boyfriend. He supported me and he told me that he believed in me. Next, I told my family and I was pleasantly surprised to see them so happy for me. My mother said she didn’t understand why I wanted to be in school for so long, trying to achieve something so big, in what she perceives to be a male-dominated profession. She thought I could start making money faster in a different field. But as time has gone by, she’s seen me demonstrate my drive and passion to move forward and pursue this career, and she’s come to support me, too.
I started my first semester at my new university with a bang. I didn’t know I had it in me. I mostly excelled in my courses. When I struggled at times, I haven’t quit. I keep going. I’ve met great people with the same goal and feel in my zone around them and in my classes. I’m even considered “the smart one” in my groups. It’s filled me with happiness because I never thought I would get here. But it’s really my beginning, because I know I have so much more to go through. Soon I’ll be taking the MCAT and preparing to start filling out medical school applications. It’s been a long road, but I haven’t felt that I’ve made the wrong decision, not once.
The point of sharing my story is that no matter who you think you are, where you come from, or how cruel life has been, don’t let that hold you back or tell you can’t do something. You can either become what others expect of you or you can use that as the fuel to push yourself to do better. It’s nice to have support from others, but ultimately your drive needs to come from within you. We are our own biggest support system and we are our biggest enemy. Our self-doubt or self-confidence can be a powerful influence in our decision making, how we react to obstacles, and ultimately what we do in life. You have to believe and feel it in your bones. Believe me, once you wake up that fire inside of you, it’s nearly impossible to put out.
About Stephanie Cantu
Stephanie Cantu is from El Paso, TX and is now a sophomore at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. She is a Pre-Med Biology major with a minor in Spanish and Chemistry. She is the first of her family to attend to a university. She volunteers at La Quinta Mazatlan where she protects the local environment. She is in the process of getting more involved in her new community and school. She is on a new and mysterious road where she has been doubted if she can succeed. She proves them wrong as she will become a junior in the spring where she will be taking the remainder of her biology courses.