Thursday, July 3rd, 2014

Medical School Dreams Come True for Undocumented Students and their Families – Three Perspectives


Medical School Perspective

In October of 2012, Loyola University Chicago’s Stritch School of Medicine became the first medical school in the United States to include the immigration status of “eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)” in addition to the standard U.S. Citizen or legal permanent resident categories as welcome to apply. (see Some medical schools also recognized an international student category and have occasionally accepted an undocumented immigrant as a student under that description. But Loyola became the first to recognize this category of applicants for who they are, i.e., as long-standing fully acculturated members of our communities who are poised to contribute to the physician workforce. In addition, the school has worked with the state’s infrastructure bank, the Illinois Finance Authority (IFA), to create a student loan program modeled on public health service loans for these students. Thus, Loyola Stritch School of Medicine will have eight Dreamers of DACA status in their incoming class. In the current issue of Academic Medicine, Mark Kuczewski, PhD, and Linda Brubaker, MD, detail the opportunities and challenges for medical schools in opening their doors to these applicants. Below, hear from one of the eight entering Dreamer students and the mother of another.

Student Perspective

By Manuel Bernal

My aspManuel's Headshot croppediration to serve others through medicine traces back to the age of twelve when my cousin was undergoing cancer treatment at St. Jude’s Research Hospital. At that time, I was blissfully ignorant of my undocumented status. Throughout my undergraduate career I slowly realized the debilitating effect my immigration status had on the prospects of attending medical school. Together, with a close faculty advisor, we contacted regional schools to inquire about their admission policy in the context of my situation. The two state-funded medical schools in Tennessee confirmed that they would not consider my application because of my status. Even private-institutions that I contacted would consider my application only as an international student requiring me to show proof of available funds to cover all four years of my medical education, something my family was not able to do.

Somewhere throughout my sophomore year of college, I embraced the fact that attending medical school in the country that I had called home for the last 20 years was near impossible. However, I remained focused not only to my academics, but also on my dream of becoming a physician. Hours upon hours were spent online gathering research on various medical schools abroad. As scary as an idea as it was, my best hope for attending medical school was at a Mexican school of medicine. The thought of returning to my birth country, one that had become a distant memory over the last twenty years, made me nauseous and worried my parents even more. If I returned there, I faced the risk of being banned from reentry into the States for ten years. The idea of not being able to see my parents or two younger siblings for such an extended period caused me much distress. However, in my opinion, if I went through with obtaining my medical degree, even in Mexico, I would be better able to take care of my family later in life.

So, I went on, studied even harder, gained clinical experience, and joined a research lab, all with the hopes of further developing myself as a candidate for medical school. One day while, I happened to stumble upon a life-changing blog post on a Student Doctor Network forum posted on January 22, 2013. The statement had been taken from the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine admissions’ website:

“Applicants must be U.S. citizens or hold a permanent resident visa, or be eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) process of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services at the time of application”.

It seemed too good to be true. Finally, everything that I had accomplished had the potential to pay off. Even though I still had to apply and out compete the competitive applicant pool, it was relieving to know that at least I was given a chance: a chance to display my talents on an equal playing field with the other thousands of applicants.

A Mother’s Perspective

Our journey started last year with the Summer Enrichment Program 2013 at Loyola where my daughter, Johana, applied and was accepted. She left home for the first time in her life, alone, to go to Chicago full of dreams and expectations. She graduated from Colorado University Boulder in May 2011 with a double major in Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology and Neurosciences. Because she had an expired visa at that time, she could not pursue right away her dream of being a physician. Since I can remember, my little girl has always wanted to be a doctor and help people. But as she could not do it right away, she volunteered in a neuroscience and psychology lab and tutored students for the last 3 years.

As a mother my heart has been aching for the unfortunate situation she was put in since she did not choose that – we did.  We as parents, and without intention, created a situation that left her with few opportunities compared to other students. Even though it was very hard, we never lost our faith and kept repeating to ourselves, “What does not kill us, will make us stronger”. She kept on her journey working hard and believing that in the future it would pay off. When Loyola University gave her the opportunity to join the Stritch School of Medicine Summer Enrichment Program, she took it full swing. She mentioned how the staff made her feel appreciated for who she was, regardless of her immigration status. They gave her the right tools to learn, to serve and dream big about becoming a doctor. She called home every day to talk about her day and we could see in her face (via FaceTime) the joy, happiness, satisfaction and eagerness.

We knew in our hearts that this program was going to change her life and it was happening at that moment. She came home from Chicago and kept talking about the amazing people she met: classmates, physicians, faculty members from different departments, medical students and the school atmosphere. The fact that she came home more confident, with strong determination and a lot of faith confirmed that she maybe could pursue her dream of becoming a physician through this opportunity. She was now prepared and felt good enough to apply to some universities but she said loud and clear and without hesitation, “ If Loyola calls me for an interview and accepts me, that is where I want to be, that is where my heart is”… She was accepted, and will be starting in August 2014.

3 thoughts on “Medical School Dreams Come True for Undocumented Students and their Families – Three Perspectives

  1. Beautiful life story. Congrats on your admission and I wish you the best. This made me realize that I too, can become anything I desire despite all road bumps. I’m also working towards that goal.

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