In this Q&A series, I have the honor of featuring Irasema! She gets real by sharing her challenges as first generation college student, but also what she did to overcome her challenges. She also shares advice she wishes she would have known as a premed! Enjoy!
Irasema is a first-year medical student at A.T. Still University – School of Osteopathic Medicine in Arizona. She was born and raised in Tucson, AZ where she received her degree in Speech and Hearing Sciences from the University of Arizona. As an undergraduate student, she was involved in public health research and interned at a pediatric sports medicine clinic. In her free time, she enjoys doing Crossfit, climbing, and skiing. She also enjoys cooking and spending time with her husband and two dogs.
1. What interested you in pursuing a career as a physician? Did you consider other career choices?
When I was 12 years old, my mother became extremely sick and underwent four surgeries (three of which were emergencies) in a span of 3 weeks. I became her primary caregiver for eight months. It was difficult to see my strong mother in such a frail state but seeing her make progress week to week sparked an interest in me to pursue a career in healthcare. At that time, I was unaware I could even go to college let alone become a physician.
My freshman year I considered Physical Therapy, Public Health and Audiology. I switched majors quite a few times but when I discovered medicine, I never looked back.
2. As a first-generation college student, what are some of the challenges that you have faced?
I graduated high school when I was 16 and moved into the dorms on my college campus that same year. I had to quickly learn how to balance working, a full-time course load and managing finances with no guidance. The first two years, the biggest challenges I faced were lack of mentorship and financial constraints. I had to work multiple jobs throughout undergrad to support myself and my family. At certain points, this did affect my grades because I was unable to dedicate the appropriate amount of time to studying. I think this also made it more challenging to find volunteer and research opportunities because I had no time outside of work and class. I had multiple pre-med advisors tell me to consider another field because I would never get to medical school.
3. How did you over these challenges?
The single most important thing I did was to start seeing a therapist. It allowed me to work through a lot of anxiety and confusion I was feeling. For the first time in my life I felt like I had a clear understanding of what I needed to do to achieve my goals. It also allowed me to set boundaries with my family and dedicate more time to school (this is especially hard as a child of immigrants). Additionally, I sought out mentors by either cold calling physicians or emailing them until I got a response. I met some wonderful people this way and I would not be here without them!
4. How many medical schools did you apply to? What was important to you when choosing where to apply?
By the time I applied to medical school, I was in a serious relationship with my current husband. He has an established career here in Tucson so I did not want to relocate out of the state for at least a couple of years. My family and support system are also here so I did my best to apply to schools near my hometown. My situation is a little different than most medical students because my application was “sponsored” by one of my mentors who is a professor at my medical school. The program is called Hometown Scholars and it guarantees an interview for the student. This is the medical school I was accepted to early on in the cycle. In total I applied to 5 or 6 medical schools that were close to home.
5. What made you want to pursue DO? What are your favorite aspects of the DO curriculum?
I love the emphasis on the biopsychosocial approach to patient care! I would argue the curriculum is very similar to the MD curriculum except with the additional OMM and MSK courses we have to take.
Pre-med culture can be tough and make you feel like you’re not as qualified to apply to medical school.
6. Can you tell us about some of the extracurricular activities you were involved in undergrad and how you got involved in them?
As an undergraduate student, I volunteered as a clinical interpreter for community health centers and local hospitals. I first began by shadowing physicians and would translate for them when working with Spanish-speaking patients. I would then offer to help as a clinical interpreter once I had established a relationship with them. I also interned at a pediatric sports medicine clinic where we helped mostly young athletes recovering from concussions or TBIs. These are both opportunities I came across my cold calling physicians in my area!
7. Is there a specialty you’re most interested in pursuing? If so, how did you decide?
I am very drawn to Otolaryngology due to my undergraduate classes in speech and hearing sciences and I love working with geriatric and pediatric populations. However, at this point in medical school everything sounds interesting! I’m just trying to keep an open mind and see what I fall in love with these next few years.
8. Where do you study best? Any tips for studying long hours?
I study best at home and alone! I get too distracted studying with others and in crowded places like coffee shops. My favorite thing to do for a long study day is to light a candle, put on some comfy clothes and turn on a focused studying playlist of just instrumentals on spotify. I also like to put my phone away and keep a checklist of things I need to finish so it motivates me to keep going.
9. Have you been able to use the same strategies for learning as you did in undergrad?
I have completely had to change my learning strategies. In undergrad, I would hand write all of my notes and the important aspects of the lecture slides in each class. There is no time to do this in medical school. I use a combination of anki, Osmosis and boards and beyond. I also loved Dr. Najeeb on youtube for neuro! I only take time to handwrite concepts I am having a difficult time with.
10. What is something you wish you knew before applying to medical school?
I wish I knew that it would all work out in the end! Admission committees understand that we are human and we are doing our best. They don’t expect perfection. They want hardworking and kind individuals in their medical school. I made many mistakes and constantly felt like I would never match up to the other students applying to medical school. However, my unique experiences helped me stand out to admission committees and I received multiple interviews. Never give up!!
11. What one big tip you have for pre-medical students who are early in the journey to medical school?
Focus on your schooling and grades as much as possible. Don’t worry about extracurriculars until you’ve figured out how to manage your time and get good grades. If you don’t have to work, even better! If you do have to work, try to lighten up your course load so you can still get the best grades possible. Additionally, don’t sweat the small stuff! Pre-med culture can be tough and make you feel like you’re not as qualified to apply to medical school. The truth is this is imposter syndrome talking, and everyone around you probably feels the same way (some are just better at hiding it).
I hope you enjoyed the interview! Let us know if you have any questions by leaving a comment below!