At first blush, Dr. Mayra Alejandra Jones-Betancourt, a UNLV Medicine pediatrician, doesn’t appear to have had the kind of background associated with a career in medicine.
A California native, she grew up in a single parent family. Her mother, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who spoke only Spanish (she has since become a citizen), worked cleaning houses, in factories, and in the fields to support her four children -- the family lived in a small two bedroom apartment in San Diego County.
But harsh realities, which frequently result in individuals settling for a life far beneath what they could have lived, instead became Jones-Betancourt’s catalyst for change.
“Growing up and seeing my mother work so hard definitely motivated me to pursue higher education,” says Jones-Betancourt, who became an assistant professor with the UNLV School of Medicine Department of Pediatrics in September of last year. ”My mother believed in the American Dream for her children. She told us you can be whatever you want to be, doors would open for you, if you worked hard enough in America -- that was her mantra.”
Armed with a belief in that mantra and with a good head on her shoulders -- a second grade teacher told the good doctor’s mother that she thought her daughter was a gifted student -- the child read everything she could get her hands on.
“I did really well in math and science early on,” says Jones-Betancourt, who worked as soon as she was old enough after school and on weekends. “I realized early on, education could make a big difference.”
In grade school she frequently served as an interpreter for her mother. By the age of 12, she knew she wanted to be a doctor.
“My experiences being an interpreter for my mother in all facets of life, including medical appointments, was very eye-opening. I discovered that not many physicians were women or looked like me or my family and did not speak our language. Often I felt that medical professionals did not understand my family and did not understand the barriers we faced to medical treatments. As a child, I thought that if I was a doctor, I could help families that were like mine and that I would understand them.”
A lack of solid doctor-patient communication played a major role in her aunt dying at the age of 45 of a stroke, Jones-Betancourt believes. “Negative experiences in medicine played a large role in my going into medicine. I was sure I could do better.”
When she reflects on her journey in higher education and medicine, Jones-Betancourt is grateful for mentors and pipeline programs that introduce high school students to college and college students to medical school. In high school she says she was paired with a college student who told her how to apply for college.
“My mother provided support but since she was unfamiliar with the educational system in the United States, she was not able to help navigate applying to college, preparing for the medical school admission test or applying to medical school. As a first generation student, I navigated through various challenges including financial obstacles alone...I didn’t have a computer so I would go to the public library to use the computers there for applications... I am thankful that through pipeline programs and mentorship I was able to achieve my dream.”