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HerStory: Becoming a Doctora while Living on the Cusp of Two Worlds - Maria Zepeda

My parents came to “El Norte” to find a better future like many other families do. In fact, my mother crossed the border undocumented and three months pregnant with me with hopes to provide me better opportunities than the ones they had in Jalisco, Mexico. My father wanted to become a professor and my mother a hairdresser, but cultural and financial barriers hindered their opportunities to achieve their aspirations in their youth. Once they crossed to the states, my father continued my grandfather’s former work as a ranch maintenance worker and my mother became a housekeeper in a predominantly well-off, rural town in the Santa Ynez Valley, CA. They did not have the financial resources to provide for my academics or the time to attend school activities but, they always told me that they could provide me with the most important thing in life, which was the opportunity to an education, something they themselves were cut short from. Therefore, education became my empowerment.

Growing up in a community where my family and I were considered the “other,” where my language and my culture were not the same as the majority, I was often pointed at for not fitting in. I soon found out that I needed to work harder than the rest of my affluent classmates to achieve similar aspirations of becoming a professional. As young as I was a second grader, I knew I wanted to become a doctor. This big dream largely stemmed from all the power my own family lacked in a community where it seemed we were always the “other.” It is when I learned that I lived on the cusp of two worlds.

In one world, I went to school with others that were not like me. I had to speak English and adapt to a very different culture that I was not used to. Nevertheless, in this world I had one goal—to become an outstanding student who was trying to improve her lot for her family. I excelled in all of my classes achieving A grades. My mother tells me stories of how diligent I was since I was very little. She didn’t have time or the language to teach me English, but I learned my ABCs and 123s by following along to cassettes with my PlaySkool cassette player. My father helped me complete my homework using an English-Spanish dictionary to translate my homework through third grade. After that, I was able to take up my schoolwork. As I approached the upper grade, my assignments became more rigorous requiring essays and access to a computer, something I didn’t have. I vividly remember spending my nights at my classmates’ home who were neighbors. I would wait until she and her brothers would finish, so I could do mine. All of these little hardships in the road were things that at the moment did not feel like a stretch for me because I was dedicated to get my top grades and be a professional like the rest of the families that surrounded me in school. I would often ask myself, why can’t my family be like them? Why can’t my family have a voice and feel confident around others? I knew it was this that kept pushing me forward.

However, at the same time I was the bridge into another world everyday where I spoke Spanish, where I was happy to be Mexican, and I was comfortable being me. In this world, I was my family’s navigator, decision-maker, and voice. I was also a stereotypical Latina who would most likely not make it further than high school. I was a low-wage worker who helped my mother clean houses after school for my classmates. It was a very different feeling to be in the same class with people for whom you worked for. Sometimes even wearing their “spring clean-out” clothes to school because their throw-out clothes was my wardrobe. I found out that my family and my happy world lacked a lot of what the other world had—power and voice. It frustrated me to see so much injustice, and so my frustration became an internal impulse to pursue a higher education for my family and my community, a passion to strengthen the bridge in my two worlds and reduce the gap.

Being the first in my family to pursue a higher education, I was always navigating my own pathway and learning about college as I went along. I am thankful for my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Clevenger, and other junior high teachers that saw potential in me because thanks to them, I graduated eighth grade with a full-ride scholarship to attend Dunn School, a private school in the valley where I lived. Although high school many times I felt out of place because I continued to be a part of the minority of Latinx students at Dunn, I was thankful because I was preparing my best to attend college. Apart from fulfilling academic requirements and extracurriculars, I worked to help my family financially and support my academic needs, and I had household duties to do because my parents both worked. I took honors and AP classes, earned awards and scholarships to universities, and graduated with over a 4.0 GPA in 2010.

Upon college acceptance, I decided to attend UC Berkeley. To this day, I still have a love-hate relationship with it. I went through the hardest transition, experiencing emotional instability that affected me academically. My first year at UC Berkeley, I was borderline academic probation—grades I had not seen before in my life. I was trying to juggle being away from my family, trying to find ways to financially support them while away, keeping up with a new way of studying, while no one was there to guide me on how to do college. My biggest mistake was taking classes in my first year as if it were high school—I took my core classes English, math, a science course, and a psychology course. Obviously, that was not how college worked. But I didn’t know that. What I did know was that I needed to find help.

I remember going to an advisor and directly asking what I needed to do so I could get to medical school because I wanted to become a doctor. I will never forget her response. She looked at the document I had with my first semester grades and coldly said, “Oh, you will never get into medical school like that.” I looked at her with a blank stare and my eyes began to tear up. I had no words. I took my paper with me and walked out of the office with a knot in my throat. I remember going to the side of the river where I would go after exams. I called my mom and told her I wanted to go back home and just do city college, that I wasn’t going to make it anyways. Mi madre gave me strength by telling me to remember who I am: a person that does not give up and that completes what she starts. So that is what I proposed myself to do from that day on.

I am thankful that UC Berkeley provided me with opportunities to mature and to accomplish my interests. I started and taught a Medical Spanish course, became a leader for a medical mission in Honduras, and conducted research in pregnancy and diabetes at Sansum Diabetes Research Institute (SDRI). I also joined Chicanos in Health Education (CHE) where I met life-long friends that shared similar goals to me. Near the end of my college career, I decided to take on a double major in Integrative Biology and Spanish. I finished my Spanish major through study abroad in order to expand my language and culture interests. I successfully graduated with my two majors in 2015 with an upwards trend. I then completed the UC Davis Postbaccalaureate Program at UC Davis where obtained a 3.9 GPA proving myself that I was ready to be a competitive medical school applicant.

However, that was not the end to my bumpy pathway to medical school. After taking the MCAT twice and not achieving a competitive score for applying, I decided to take a break from school. I worked as an assistant in interior design and a program coordinator at SDRI. During this time, I married my supportive husband, saved up for an MCAT course, and prepared to fully dedicate time to achieve a competitive score on the MCAT on my third time—and I did. It is truly is a mind game—I’ve learned it the hard way that it is all on the mindset. My application process did not get any easier, I got rejection after rejection. It was emotionally draining. But I was holding on to my want tighter than ever, and I was not letting go. Near the end of my application cycle, I received two interviews at my top in-state and top-out-of-state schools. I was very blessed to be accepted into both and would have never thought I would have options to choose from. The day I got my first call of acceptance, I was in tears. For the first time in my life, I heard the most honest “You will become a doctor.”

We had made it familia! This accomplishment was not just mine, but for my familia, nuestra comunidad, and for all of you out there who resonate with my story. Because if I can, you can too. It is important to always hold on tightly to your wants. There might be obstacles that may make your pathway rocky and people who might discourage you by telling you can’t. But make those weakness, your strength. Like my padre would often remind me “Enseñales que tu puedes (Show them that you can do it, too).”

I proudly decided to attend my top-school UC Davis School of Medicine in the REACH track program. I am a current incoming third year who has successfully completed preclinical years not only as a full-time student, but as a wife, daughter, and sister. I completed leadership positions as Co-chair for the Latino Medical Student Association and Co-Director at Knight’s Landing Women’s Health Clinic, and currently provide mentorship outside of school time. I am currently studying to take my first national boards exam and preparing to do my clinical rotations. Medical school gets harder by the minute, but we always have to remember what out motivation is. Keep an eye at where you WILL be in years from now. I will never forget when I was only a few weeks into medical school, and I called my mother. She asked, “Mija, when are you finishing so you can come help us?” And that is what keeps me going. I have a community waiting for me to become the best doctora to provide care for them. I know I will always need to work harder than the rest because I am still on the cusp of two worlds. I am that bridge that holds my worlds together who will diminish inequities, help others like my family, and inspire the next generation to become stronger anchors to the bridges of their worlds.


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