Hi, my name is Jessica and I’m a second-year MD/MBA student. I’ve come a long way and I’ve got a long way to go! What I’ve found on my journey to becoming a physician is this: things will rarely go according to plan, no one’s path is perfect, and no two paths are identical. The only way to get into medical school is to never stop working towards your dream. It’s still possible to get into med school even when your GPA is below average like mine was. Failing a class like I did is not the end of the world, nor the end of your dreams to become a doctor. Some doubt will be part of moving forward. For example, my doubts persisted after taking the 7-hour MCAT twice and still disappointed with scores. When I needed encouragement the most, my advisor told me that I was not likely to get into medical school. Part of the journey is being able to overcome self-doubt and obstacles along the way.
"What I’ve found on my journey to becoming a physician is this: things will rarely go according to plan, no one’s path is perfect, and no two paths are identical. The only way to get into medical school is to never stop working towards your dream."
My journey to medical school has been riddled with “disasters” — things that ruined my 4-year plan to get into med school, forcing me into a 5-year plan, which ultimately turned into a 6-year plan. If you have big dreams then chances are that you, too, will have your own “disasters” along the way. It may not feel normal, but it is. These wrenches in our plans are never easy to deal with, but they’ve certainly become easier to manage with family support, a little resilience, and a lot of practice. When I was in 5th grade, I decided I was going to be a doctor. My aunt and uncle both worked as family medicine physicians and recruited my brother and me to volunteer at the annual summer immunization clinics. Most days, we saw hundreds of people. Some days, a thousand. The clinic was serving a community that was and continues to be marginalized in health care—Latinx and Black families living in low-income neighborhoods.
"If you have big dreams then chances are that you, too, will have your own “disasters” along the way. It may not feel normal, but it is"
I felt so fulfilled walking families to and from their exam rooms for the doctors to see. I don’t think I really understood all that a doctor did at 11 years old, but I saw the positive impact that they made in their patients’ lives. The same worried and frustrated families that I walked into the exam room walked out smiling and laughing when I picked them up. I wanted to be that kind person for the community too someday and I knew I needed good grades to become a doctor. I set my mind on medicine and worked hard all throughout middle and high school to eventually go to Brown University.
My first semester of college, I enrolled in entry-level biology and chemistry. I told myself that I would start with entry-level courses as a sure-thing GPA booster and move up another level if it got too boring. It didn’t take very many days for me to realize that my public high school education had its limits at Brown. My entry-level classes felt like they were PhD-level; the professors were covering 2-3 chapters in 50 minutes. Everyone else in class seemed to follow along just fine, which created some doubts within me. I attended every lecture, wrote down everything as quickly as I could, studied hours for exams, did pages and pages of practice problems. I still struggled through tests. Having never been anything less than above-average in high school, I had no idea what to do. This was happening almost every single test I took in every single science class. My scores were horrendous. They were somehow good enough to land me B’s in the class, but they were consistently 20-30 points below the average. Sometimes more. My original plan going into college was to double-major in public health and business and then fill in the semesters with pre-med requirements, but it was looking like I was going to have to put business classes on hold.
Since I went into college believing that anything could be accomplished with the right amount of hard work, I figured I just wasn’t trying hard enough. I forced myself to study outside of my dorm room and moved instead to a little corner on the ninth floor of the library away from distractions. That didn’t work. I measured how much I studied in days instead of hours. That didn’t work either. Every test I’d try something new and every test I’d come home disappointed, scolding myself for not working hard enough. Eventually I stopped working out, seeing my friends, eating healthy, and sleeping well so that I could “work harder”. I wanted to find a study group, but making friends in science classes was hard for me. In a class of over a hundred students, maybe 3 or 4 other students were also underrepresented minorities in STEM. And those were my entry-level classes. Usually that number was sliced in half or more by the next semester. Regardless, no one seemed as lost as I did at the time. I felt incompetent andalone at my dream school, and medical school was feeling less attainable with each passing semester.
One day after a particularly rough chemistry test, my mom called to ask how I’d done. Usually after my science exams, I disguised my disappointment as determination to do better on the next exam so that way my parents wouldn’t worry about me. This time I couldn’t hide it. I broke down into tears, exhausted and inconsolable. My grades were telling me loud and clear that I was not medical school material and I’d decided that I needed to stop chasing a dream that seemed impossible. Nothing my mom said was going to change my mind. I hung up the first chance I got because I was embarrassed knowing that my parents had sacrificed so much for me. I sat in my dorm room sobbing uncontrollably feeling like a fraud. For the first time in my life I felt that my potential was limited. It seemed that I had found one thing I couldn’t accomplish with hard work, and it was my dream of becoming a physician.
Just as I was starting to regain control of my breathing after all the crying, my uncle called. Clearly, my mom had sent the signal out to everyone in the family who she thought could console me. I was annoyed because I had already told myself I was giving up on medicine, but I answered the phone out of respect for my uncle. He asked me how I was doing and politely pretended not to have been briefed by my mom just moments before calling. I explained matter-of-factly that I was not meant to go to medical school since I didn’t seem to be able to handle the prerequisites. My uncle let out a little reminiscent laugh and shared that he hated the same pre-med requirements when he was in college too, but that these classes were not going to determine how good of a doctor I would be. He told me to take each class day by day, try my best, and just keep going. He said that if I could do those things, then I would make it to medical school. They were simple words, but I was determined to understand what his advice meant for me. I had to adjust to do better. We hung up and I agreed to give medicine one more shot.
"They were simple words, but I was determined to understand what his advice meant for me. I had to adjust to do better".
This was the first OF MANY times in my academic career where I felt like a “disaster” of a pre-med student, unable to effortlessly float through my coursework and check lists like the rest of my classmates seemed to do. I felt like I could never get through an internship, research project, club, sport, shadowing experience, volunteer opportunity, or science class without having to overcome some new and make-me-or-break-me challenge. In times of serious self-doubt though, just before I renounced medicine once and for all, I turned to someone and asked for help. I voiced the same concerns I always had—that I was undeserving of a career in medicine and that maybe I should just give up; my family, friends, mentors, school therapists, or significant other would tell me each time to take it day by day, try my best, and just keep going. There were many days when I could not promise anyone that I wouldn’t give up, but I could always eventually promise to give it one more shot.
I have accomplished unbelievable things in the face of adversity and seized incredible opportunities because of the support system and the resilience I’ve been fortunate enough to build over the course of my academic career. Aside from graduating from Brown and being accepted into an MD/MBA program where I can combine my interests in medicine and business, I regained some of the healthy self-confidence I had before going to Brown, I found ways to keep a work-life balance, I have been performing better in medical school than I ever did in college, and I still have not given up on my dream of becoming a doctor. My support system has helped me see that all I needed to do was ask for help when I needed it. This isn’t something that competitive, high-achieving pre-meds are known or necessarily praised for. It takes a lot of humility and bravery to say “I don’t know” in a field as intense as medicine, but asking for help and staying resilient in the face of adversity have been the most important skills I have developed during my time as a pre-med and medical student.
Barriers to your success WILL present themselves at the worst times and you won’t always know how to move forward. I know that even though I’m now in medical school and have moved past feeling like a “disaster” premed student, I will have days where I feel like a “disaster” medical student. Fortunately, I feel equipped and confident enough to know that I will not give up. If you have a dream, there will be things and people that will challenge your dedication which may lead you to wonder if you should just quit. Those pressing thoughts may grow if you try to conquer them on your own. Before those thoughts get out of hand, I encourage you to reach out to one person who cares about you and believes in you. If that person is unable to help for whatever reason, reach out to another. Ask for help and see what happens. You’ll be amazed by what you can accomplish.
For everyone who has supported me on this journey, especially:
Mom, Dad, Jacob, Andres, The Parras, Grandma Mary Alice, Grandma Mona, Lili, Ale, & Dr. Saldaña