Being a first-generation college student is hard. Being a first-generation college student and being pre-med is even harder. And since education and income are closely linked in the U.S., it’s no surprise that many first-generation college students also come from a low-income background.
I fell into this category.
My parents did not finish high school, and money was always tight. I had never heard of pre-med until I got to college. I had no mentors who were doctors — let alone professionals. Years later, I learned that more than 75 percent of medical students come from families in the top-two quintiles for income, and only 5 percent of medical students were in the lowest household-income quintile. And these numbers have not changed in three decades.
This needs to change. Our doctors need to represent the population we serve. As I reach another milestone with my pediatric residency graduation, I reflect on all the challenges I overcame to get to this point. It was not easy. But I now have a greater appreciation on why it’s so important to diversify the medical field. So, to all the first-generation college pre-med students out there, here is some advice to help you on your journey.
Being pre-med means you are in it for the long haul. This means four years of college, four years of medical school, a minimum three years of post-graduate training, and then there is fellowship training if you want to subspecialize. This does not include any gap years in between. I’ve lost count the amount of times my family has asked me if I’m done with school or training yet. (The answer is still no).
And because our parents can’t help us navigate college or know what the pre-med track entails — unfortunately, a lot — if not all of the planning falls on you. This means you have to be organized and find out early on where the pre-med advising office is.
From my experience and talking to several friends who are also first-generation college graduates, pre-med advising can be hit or miss. Sometimes as a first-gen, we don’t fit the traditional mold of a pre-med student, and this can sometimes make pre-med advisors uncomfortable. I, fortunately, had great advising. However, if you are not so lucky, don’t give up your dream because one advisor questions your competitiveness. Know that there are different aspects of your application, and grades are only one part. That said, it is up to you to stay organized and plan your pre-med requirements.
In addition to planning your pre-med college years, you also have to actively and purposefully seek opportunities — especially when it comes to pre-med summer programs, shadowing or work. Summer programs applications open up early, as early as November or December. You should research these programs starting your freshman year. The summer after my freshman year, I participated in SMDEP (now called SHPEP) which provided a variety of academic and career experiences in medicine. It was a very well-organized program. There are so many programs across the nation with different focuses, some funded, some not. So do your research early.
Something no one told me, but I found out early, is that most programs read your applications as they come in, so the sooner you submit the higher the chances there will still be spots available. Talk to students ahead of you and ask them about the programs they have done. Don’t let a summer go to waste!
Similarly, you also have to seek out mentors. It’s an added bonus if you can find a mentor who is also a first-generation college graduate, but it is not necessary. There are so many doctors who love mentoring and become invested in your success, so reach out to them. Don’t get discouraged if they do not respond to your first email; email them again. Be persistent.
There are also many online mentoring platforms for pre-meds, check them out. Some schools or scholarships have mentoring programs, sign up for them! In fact, my first mentor was through a scholarship that I was awarded through the Hispanic Scholarship Fund.
Almost as important as mentors, if not more important, is finding your group of friends who will believe in you when you doubt yourself and celebrate with you your successes. Sometimes being a first-gen pre-med student can be isolating. A strong support system is key in this journey.
Like I alluded to before, grades are not the end all be all. Let me repeat this again: grades and test scores are not the end-all-be-all. There were multiple times as a pre-med student that I questioned whether my grades were good enough or if my MCAT was competitive enough.
And sometimes it’s easy to think this is all the admissions committee see. But it is not. Most schools now do holistic reviews which means they not only look at your grades but also balance that with your experiences, they look at the “whole applicant.” So even if you don’t have the perfect GPA or above-average MCAT, this doesn’t mean you can’t be a doctor. Having a strong work ethic can take you a lot farther, especially later down the line when it comes to patient care.
Your particular challenges and obstacles as a first-generation college pre-med student will give you a unique perspective. And your future patients will appreciate this. You will probably have to work harder than your non-first gen pre-med colleagues. And your journey to medical school might take you longer. Own your story, your struggles and your successes.
Because your future patients need you.
Jenny Ruiz is a pediatric hematology-oncology fellow.
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