Maria knew she wanted to be a pharmacist early, already convinced as a junior in high school that pharmacy was the right path for her. Her epiphany was the result of a mix of experiences: she was studying advanced chemistry, she was volunteering in the pharmacy of a San Diego hospital, and she was facing the reality of her grandmother’s chronic health conditions. “I remember my grandmother had a bag full of medications, and I was curious to know how they were keeping her healthy,” Maria recalls. A career as a pharmacist fit the bill.
A glimpse into life elsewhere
Maria considers both San Diego and Mexico as home. After being born in the United States, Maria spent first through fourth grade in Mexico, where her family is from, and the experience was eye-opening. “Life there was harsh,” she remembers. “The educational environment is totally different,” she explains, “and when I returned to the U.S., I realized that if I work hard enough, I can accomplish anything.” The transition back into the American school system was tough, but Maria flourished as a high school student and earned acceptance into University of California, San Diego (UCSD).
Help along the way
She credits a few key experiences with her success in college. As an incoming student, Maria participated in UCSD’s Summer Bridge, an enrichment program designed to immerse new students in college-level coursework before starting school in the fall. She remembers fondly the quality of mentorship the program provided and what a clear impact it had on her commitment to the sciences. “It really helped me focus on my goal,” she shares. Maria was so grateful for her experience in the Summer Bridge program that she returned the favor, signing on to become a chemistry workshop facilitator and mentor for a new wave of students. “That was where I started to learn about activist culture ... They helped me realize my priority to stay in the sciences, succeed, and help others do the same.” Maria also took on a role as a volunteer at the UCSD Student-Run Free Clinic while shadowing pharmacists and participating in research.
Why University of California, San Francisco (UCSF)?
Pharmacy schools in California appealed to Maria because of the diversity they offered and because she eventually wanted to return to her home in San Diego to practice. That meant applications to nearly all the schools in the state. “My mom actually came with me to all my interviews,” Maria remembers with a grateful laugh. She credits her mom with being her rock throughout the entire application process. “At UCSF I felt an instant connection with the people I met,” she explains, a feeling that made her decision easy. Despite feeling homesick for the first few months, she’s happy she made the choice, not only for the school itself, but for the opportunity of living in a new, different city away from home.
Serving the underserved
Maria feels a strong duty to the underserved communities she grew to know in her hometown. “I want to help people like my grandmother,” she explains, “non-English speakers, people who aren’t legal residents ... I want to combine pharmacy with support for the underserved.” Maria started working on her goal by taking on the presidency for the Student National Pharmacist Association (SNPhA) chapter at UCSF. SNPhA, a student organization committed to underserved and underrepresented populations in pharmacy, united both her passions and reaffirmed her decision to become a pharmacist. Her leadership in the organization meant spending quality time engaged in community outreach and increasing public awareness. “We must never forget to remember where we come from and to give back to our communities,” she says.
Bumps in the road
Pharmacy school, like life itself, can lead to some ups and downs. During her second year, Maria realized she was in danger of hitting a wall, having overcommitted herself and facing academic challenges as a result. Initially distraught, she eventually reached out to her support network at UCSF and was relieved and surprised to find help waiting for her. “Support at UCSF exists. They are not going to give up on you,” she shares. Through the help of some tutors and her fellow classmates, Maria took a step back to reevaluate and found her way back on track. “I’m happy I opened up about it,” she reveals. The experience of stumbling actually helped enrich her pharmacy school experience, allowing her to find time to explore an independent research project and find scholarship opportunities. “It really came full circle for me when I applied for a scholarship and was totally open about my challenges—and I still got it!” she exclaims. “I want others to know it’s okay to struggle along the way, but it’s important to never give up and to keep marching forward.”
“I want to do everything!” Maria admits. Her current priority is to complete a direct patient care residency, perhaps in a clinical setting in San Diego. “I want to help patients take control of their diseases and have better health outcomes through medication education,” Maria says. “The health care system that we have in place is not working, and I believe clinical research is key in order to better understand the barriers and uncover new approaches in the clinical setting.” Eventually she hopes to participate in university research and perhaps teach, especially if it will allow her to mentor and recruit more underrepresented students to the sciences and especially pharmacy.
A leap of faith
Maria has no shortage of advice for prospective student pharmacists. “Surround yourself with people whose qualities and attributes you admire so that you can learn from them and improve yourself. If you ever run into trouble, of any kind, ask for help! Never isolate yourself. And when something scares you or you are unsure of whether you can succeed—jump! Take a leap of faith,” she explains, “and you’ll be surprised.”