The Unstoppables: Undocumented Students in Medical Education

hands in go team formation

By: Raquel Rodriguez

R. Rodriguez is a first-year family medicine resident, Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center, Los Angeles, California.

At eight years old, my first glimpse of the United States was the arid land that separates the U.S.-Mexico border. As I sat in the car waiting to be assessed by the uniformed border patrol guards—marveling at the barren land of opportunity—I could not have imagined how crossing this border would transform my life. My new, secretive existence would make the simplest tasks into unusual challenges. As an undocumented student, turning sixteen came without a driver’s license, turning eighteen came with no reassurance that I would be able to attend college, and my first trip home as an undergraduate was plagued with anxiety as I handed my student ID to airport security. Fearing deportation, I guarded my secret and focused on my education.

In recent years, not unlike me, many undocumented students throughout the country have found themselves without clear hope for the future. Their ineligibility for employment having hindered their efforts to pursue a medical career. Despite their unrelenting persistence, their achievements in the classroom, and the support of entire communities, the dream of attending medical school seemed out of reach. I met many of these hopeful students as I searched for one who had successfully matriculated into a medical training program. I found none. Nonetheless, their stories of resilience amazed me and provided me with the motivation to investigate further.

Counter to the advice of premedical advisers, I applied to medical school. At the time, their concerns were valid and quite serious: How will you pay for medical school when your immigration status makes you ineligible for federal loans? What will you do after graduation without employment eligibility?

A medical program took a chance on my application, and I began my studies in the fall of 2011. As expected, financial challenges persisted, but a significant reprieve arrived shortly before my third-year clerkships. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was implemented. Via this federal memorandum, I was finally allowed to obtain employment authorization, a driver’s license, and an identity of belonging in the United States—benefits that had eluded me since my arrival in this country almost twenty years ago.

Since the DACA program was established, many medical schools have officially opened their doors to DACA recipients. While these talented students currently make up a small percentage of medical students, their stories have impressed me with their resilience, creativity, and humility—traits that everyone would value in their own physician. As described in the article, “Considerations for Residency Programs Regarding Accepting Undocumented Students Who Are DACA Recipients,” the next step is to facilitate their continued medical training.

On the days when my commute to the hospital provides me with time for reflection, I think about the undocumented students I have met and how my achievements are inspired by their stories. These students have given me hope. Now, I can only dream that the communities they call home will give them the precious opportunity to see an America that is not arid, but one that has tall buildings, resplendent streets, and where their dreams will know no boundaries.

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One Comment

  1. Jonathan Rochin
    July 8, 2017 at 5:15 PM

    I really enjoyed your story. Although, I am not undocumented I have met other individuals in a similar situation.

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