College Beat: Floreciendo – A Latina Pre-Med during COVID-19

By Karina Reyes, University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC)

Seven-year-old Karina poses for her school photos. (September, 2002).

The toughest part of my journey has been determining the woman I want to be and allowing myself to flourish. I first realized that I had grown from being a shy and anxious child to a confident young woman during a campus tour I led at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). I guided three 10-year-old girls through all the UIC hotspots. Curious, we asked each other questions and quickly realized that we shared the extraordinary story of a working-class, first-generation, Mexican – American student, thriving in the USA.

The happiness the girls exuded led me to believe that unlike me at their age, these children felt confident when contemplating their future. This filled me with an overwhelming sense of joy that I treasured until they asked me, “How are YOU… HERE?” These fifth graders were plagued with the same fears and doubts that haunted me at their age. Can my family afford college? Can I pursue my dreams? Will I belong? I told them my story.

As early as eight years old, I served as my mother’s interpreter for her medical appointments. Sometimes, I wonder if my mother could have avoided developing hypertension, high cholesterol, and neuropathic pain if we had a Spanish-speaking medical provider or a certified medical interpreter present at her medical appointments. The circumstances at the time—as unfortunate as they were—helped me set a goal: to become a physician. That is my reason for pursuing higher education. Now, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it is alarming to see that Latinos are overrepresented in infection and mortality rates. It makes me fear for my family and adds to the urgency I feel to become a physician.

Yohana Ghdey, Asiel Mohamed, and Karina Reyes make herstory on International Women’s Day as they announce the victory of their EMPOWERMENT campaign for Undergraduate Student Government (USG) President, USG Vice President, and Student Trustee. (March, 2017).

I can pursue this dream because of the support of my family and community. Not only that, but as I was preparing to enlist in the military for a chance to afford higher education, I was awarded the President’s Award Program Honors Scholarship (PAP-H) to attend UIC. PAP-H, the most prestigious scholarship at the University of Illinois, covers full tuition and housing. As the girls started to realize how similar we were, their eyes filled with tears of happiness because they found hope in my story.

Representation matters. This became even clearer to me post-graduation. Feeling burnt-out, I decided to take some time off before applying to medical school. I spent my time working in the Emergency Room as a scribe and as a receptionist. I left these positions and began to work as a Research Assistant. Though I kept pushing towards my goals, the fears and doubts came back. Can I pursue my dreams? Will I belong?

These questions quickly dissolved when I began to intern for the Medical Organization for Latino Advancement (MOLA). MOLA’s leaders are kind-hearted, resilient, and meticulous Latina and Latino health care professionals. These champions have reminded me of who I am, who I want to be, and what I want to do. COVID-19 has spotlighted the importance of Latino representation at the crossroads of education, policy, and equitable health care. I will be a practicing physician, a Dean of Diversity, and the founder of a Latino community center in my hometown. I am excited to one day take on these roles and represent the underrepresented.