The story of Tina’s journey to the United States is an emotional but remarkable one. During the mid- to late-1970s, her parents suffered through the Khmer Rouge genocide with millions of others in Cambodia. They were able to flee to Thailand, where Tina was born in a refugee camp. Eventually the family emigrated to the United States and settled in a diverse immigrant community in Rosemead, California.
Tina’s path was and continues to be shaped by her early life experiences. Spending her childhood in a diverse community awakened her to the struggles and challenges faced by immigrants and minorities, particularly those trying to carve a place for themselves in a foreign land. She saw the hard labor of immigrant workers, the frustration of language barriers, and the frequent clashes of culture around her. By the time she completed a bachelor’s degree in microbiology at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), she was already thinking about ways to support the communities near to her heart.
The importance of community
After graduating, Tina continued her education by earning a master of public health degree at Boston University, emphasizing health law, bioethics, and human rights. Armed with public health knowledge, Tina zeroed in on underserved populations she could help. Her efforts led her to spend four months in Peru working with adolescent mothers and teaching them about reproductive health. Despite the good work being done, Tina saw that the project faced serious financial limitations which left it unsustainable and difficult to continue without the right institutional policies. A path revealed itself to Tina when she realized the impact and importance of public policy: she could commit herself to policy reform, bringing real-life perspective to lawmakers who couldn’t see the people that were being affected by their decisions. She completed a fellowship at the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, continuing to explore the connection between her community work and the effects of policy.
An advocacy role in San Francisco helped Tina see the link between her passion for community causes and the impact of policy. While working for the Asian Law Caucus, she campaigned on behalf of nail salon workers who handled toxic chemicals and faced other potential hazards in a poorly regulated work environment. Her work, which included community organization and policy reform, proved challenging when the population she sought to help struggled with language barriers and gaps in education. Tina devoted herself to this cause for three years, with the intent of promoting safer standards and improving communication on both sides of the policy table.
Next step: pharmacy
It wasn’t long before the idea of working in health care came to Tina’s mind. When she reflected on the relationship between pharmacists and their patients, she saw something special and unique among health care professions. “A PharmD [doctor of pharmacy] degree will give me the unique insight into a community that only a health care provider can experience,” she explains. “With a deeper understanding of the impacted community, I will be able to effectively advocate for policies that accurately reflect the health needs of the community.” The field also offered opportunities for growth and expansion. She researched pharmacy schools and decided University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) was the one. “After talking to alumni and shadowing them, I had the sense that UCSF offered the leadership, mentorship, quality, and flexibility I wanted,” she says. Once Tina made the decision to apply to UCSF, she felt the need to go above and beyond to prepare. She enrolled in science courses, completed mock interviews, asked peers to review her statements, and even joined ToastMasters, a public speaking organization. “Applying to UCSF became my full-time job!” she laughs. Her hard work paid off when she became a member of the Class of 2013.
Tina admits she was surprised when she finally started classes at UCSF. “Classes were incredibly rigorous,” she says. “I definitely had to re-adjust when I got here.” Fortunately she found a plethora of resources that offered support, starting with an education counselor who equipped her with study tips. It wasn’t all work and no play, however. Tina emphasizes the importance of finding a balance. “Two things really kept me on track,” Tina shares. “Great friends who constantly inspire me, and journaling to reflect on my personal thoughts and professional goals.”
Use your experience to your advantage
Tina’s path to UCSF was not a direct one, but it’s part of what makes her stand out among her classmates. Too often, prospective students with non-traditional backgrounds feel discouraged by the paths they’ve taken to pharmacy school. This is a shame, Tina explains, because often it’s those non-traditional experiences that help an applicant stand out and bring a different perspective to the class. “Don’t use your age or inexperience as a crutch,” Tina says. “Instead, leverage it. People often shy away from challenges because they are afraid they are not experienced or qualified to do the job. My advice is to take on a challenge you think is too big and when you make a mistake—and you will make mistakes—people will see you are trying to learn.”
At a Health and Human Rights conference, Tina was transfixed by the keynote speaker who described the time he spent delivering babies in a Thai refugee camp. She may never know if he was the doctor who welcomed her into the world, but the possibility was enough to make her ponder the odds and to think about the lives she may impact in her future work.