Your existence is worth more than a piece of paper



Monday to Friday – ironed uniform, polished black shoes, heavy book bag, and two meticulously parted braids; it was a routine until the automatic glass doors of Dulles International Airport opened to an English slang that was new to me. I was 10 years old when my parents uprooted their relatively comfortable lives in India and arrived in America on April 25th, 2002. A stamp of arrival on the I-91 card at customs validated the entry. And so the family of four began the tricky business of equivocating Diwali and Vaisakhi to New years and Thanksgiving, all for the sake of assimilation.

In January 2007, America – land of hope and opportunity – became an unlikely life sentence for my family. My father’s immigration attorney failed to inform us about time sensitive information and crucial law changes post September 11th, 2001 while filing our naturalization case. This magnanimous mistake halted our existence at “illegal aliens.” Or so I thought. Doing all the right things and fitting the model minority stereotype was not sufficient for college admissions. I didn’t have a social security number to “prove” my existence. I suppose my applications easily traveled to the pile labeled, “After careful review of  your application, we regret to inform you…”

Despite the automated slew of rejections from colleges throughout 2008-2009 school year, life at home was that off any Southeast Asian teenager. After I administered a frustrated crash course in why I hadn’t gotten accepted to college, my parents became my advocates and constant source of encouragement. Their belief that I can achieve anything led me to graduate with a Bachelors in Biology from University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) in May 2014. This small victory in the long journey of becoming a physician was a testament to hard work and perseverance.

I stocked the continued love from my parents, guidance from a community of mentors, the determination to succeed, and willingness to work hard. As friends applied to and were offered internship positions during gap year(s) at agencies like National Institute of Health (NIH) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA), I struggled to find relevant opportunities to build my professional resume. Overwhelming frustration due to lack of guidance on how to build an authentic path ahead as an undocumented pre health professional led to many sleepless nights. Remember to prioritize mental health.

Pratishtha's Second PhotoTwo months prior to college graduation I began to conceptualize the road ahead. I made a selective list of things most important to me – family, a job, and financial security. As a first generation college graduate, I wanted to help my parents and optimize my time to built a clinically relevant resume. To effectively execute a plan to look for jobs or mentorship, decide – Clinical or research?

Through ScribeAmerica I trained as a medical scribe in the emergency department. During the experience, I obtained valuable insight into patient – physician interactions and patient care during acute medical emergencies. I also expanded my clinical vocabulary. Though a restrictive immigration status limits the scope of opportunities, be selective with your time and invest in experiences that will be meaningful to your professional growth. After building a repertoire with attending physicians, I had the opportunity to scribe for residents going through training to become emergency physicians.

I understand many first generation college graduates gravitate toward financially helping their families. It’s an inbuilt tendency caressed by culture and a quality passed on to us by our parents. But also remember to invest in yourself. Short term, vocational work training program(s) can be an asset to your resume and allow you to work in skilled facilities. Your professional success ameliorates your family’s well being.

While working part time, I enrolled in a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) course at a local community college.

After completing clinicals in a long term nursing care facility, I knew I wanted to work in a hospital. After being guided by my clinical instructor, I enrolled in a Patient Care Technician (PCT) course. I chose this route to obtain a license in a very short amount of time. As a temporary status holder (DACA or TPS), time is essential. Prioritize short term goals, achieve what you can in small increments of time.

As I completed the patient care technician certification, I was introduced to the SOARING program at Johns Hopkins Hospital.I was excited to have the opportunity to work with exceptional bedisde nurses and physicians. After an extensive ten weeks training in the Progressive Care Unit (PCU) followed by six weeks of training in the Medical Intensive Care Unit (MICU), I started to work full time in the MICU. Use professional training as an opportunity to learn from mentors, network with coworkers, and build relationships that will last a lifetime.

Striving for success without carefully amalgamating my experiences as a medically underserved citizen and what that experience offers my future patients, I unsuccessfully applied through three application cycles to post baccalaureate programs. If you have read this far, understand that educational programs and internship/fellowship opportunities that led to rejections are important lessons to learn from. Following a rejection email or letter, always ask for feedback to become a more suited candidate the following application cycle.

I lost my dad due to a heart attack in November 2015. Road to professional school became more uncertain as I assumed the role of a primary breadwinner. I maintained my part time position in the emergency department and full time position in the MICU. Money is a means of survival. Spend reasonably and save while you can. On days of exhaustion and restlessness, I found refuge in support from my mom, family friends, and unabashed supporters. Your emotional wellbeing is important. Do not neglect your mental health when facing stress and anxiety. You have to be healthy to care for others.  

While struggling with admission to pre professional programs, I shifted my frame of thinking and planned ahead. Convert nervous energy and uncertainty into productivity. I reached out to organizations supporting the pursuits of undocumented pre health students. Through Pre Health DREAMers, PHD, I applied for the Peer Engagement and Enrichment Program (PEEP). I gained indispensable advice on tailoring personal statements, networking with mentors, and financially planning for graduate/professional school.

Start afresh. I formulated a list of programs I am interested in, personally called and emailed program directors to ensure that they are accepting DACA applicants, and considered the cost of application. I requested clinical mentors for objective peer reviews of personal statements. I enlisted help from extended groups of friends and current MD candidates, and requested donation of time for mock interviews. I conceptualized alternative funding to minimize private education loan burden. Through the support of allies and by reaching out to a larger community of friends, I was able to successfully matriculate into the Masters of Sciences in Biomedical Sciences (MSBS) Program at Western University of Health Sciences Graduate School of Biomedical sciences in fall 2018.

Despite the challenges, believe your struggle. You can be what you aspire to be.

The first picture is of the art exhibit set up during the Baltimore Light Festival – 2018. I interpret it for the silhouette. The dark background signifies the endless dead ends in the pursuit of a better tomorrow whereas all the lighted Origami birds represent the resilient 11 million people who are defying the odds everyday.

The second picture is a picture of words inscribed at the bottom of “The Jesus Statue” at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The statue is housed in the historic “dome” building – it is the only original building standing from the original structure of the hospital. It is personal because I hope to be a source of comfort to my future patients – Though I am not god, I hope to comfort in any capacity humanely possible to all communities that are barred from this basic necessity.

downloadThis post is part of the series UndocuGrads: Navigating Graduate School as an Undocumented Student where undocumented graduate school students and alumni share tips and knowledge about navigating graduate school. Many thanks to UndocuScholars for making this series possible. As an extension of the UndocuScholars project launched in 2014 at UCLA, the ongoing efforts of UndocuScholars are to engage institutional agents, college and university students, scholars, and community advocacy partners to create and further build on sustainable and effective best practices for undocumented students in higher education.

And many thanks to Elspeth Michaels for her design of the image for the series. To see more of her work, check out her website here.

Pratishtha is currently a post baccalaureate graduate student pursuing a Masters of Science in Biomedical Science and looking forward to applying to medical school in the near future. She hopes to continue to surpass systemic barriers and leave the doors behind her wide open for undocumented students pursuing higher education in the sciences.


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Categories: Applying to Grad School, UndocuGrads: Stories of former and current undocumented grad students

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