Going down memory lane... Diana Pena, a member of the UNLV School of Medicine’s charter class, did just that the other day.
One of five children of Mexican immigrants who met in the U.S.—
she’s the daughter of a long haul trucker and stay-at-home-mom
(mom was a dental assistant before her family grew)
Pena shared a verbal snapshot of her life, zeroing in on how diabetes has challenged her father; how illness gave birth to her dream of becoming a doctor; how that dream is becoming a reality.
What the 24-year-old has to say provides a better sense of how purpose is born, provides insight into why the American Dream has yet to be snuffed out.
School actually didn’t start out that well for the woman who plans on helping the underserved as a physician —
“I’ll probably become a pediatrician, that’s the way I’m leaning. I just love kids.”
English was a foreign language to Pena when she started school. “I didn’t learn English until starting kindergarten. Spanish was my first language, and I entered school only knowing how to count to 10 and say my ABCs in English. I still remember that on the first day of school when my scissors weren’t working, I didn’t know how to tell my teacher, so I broke down and cried.”
The embarrassment didn’t last. “I’m amazed at how quickly I picked up English. By year’s end, I had regular conversations with kids. When you’re young, it’s so easy to pick up a language. You’re not afraid to make mistakes... I guess that first day was a bit traumatic, but thinking back to it now, the experience is a funny memory to me... We should start kids on foreign languages in kindergarten. To be able to communicate with more people is important, an advantage.”
Her parents, both of whom became citizens, kept Pena confident in her intellectual abilities. “They always supported me. My mom worked hard with the kids and my dad works hard on the road. He’s been our sole financial support for years. I wouldn’t see him for a week at a time. They told me I could be whatever I wanted if got an education and worked hard.”
She took the advice to heart, with the honor roll becoming one of her norms in high school and college. In her last year at Cheyenne High School in North Las Vegas, she decided she wanted to become a physician. “I knew I wanted a career where I wanted to help people but I wasn’t sure how to do that until I talked with my father, realized the physical and emotional impact of diabetes on his life. My dad had a difficult time controlling it. It was then that I decided I wanted to help people and I could do it best through medicine. I realized the impact that doctors can have on patients’ lives. If I work hard like my parents, I know I can make a difference.”
While Pena was in high school, with the economy stagnating, her family almost lost their house. “We nearly had a foreclosure. It was very stressful.” Key to her desire to help the underserved is the realization in her own life that you can quickly go from middle class to lower middle class to underclass because of situations beyond your control. “I now feel passionate about helping the underserved through their health problems.”
Scholarships and grants have allowed her to pursue both undergraduate school and medical studies. Being able to live at home has held costs down. “I realize I have been fortunate. I can’t even imagine working while in medical school or worrying about how I’m going to pay off loans. Medical school should be a full time job for you.”
During her first year of medical school, Pena studied about 30 hours a week, sometimes longer. She always studied 16 hours on weekends. “Before you begin medical school, you wonder if you can do it. You’ve heard how difficult it is. There are times when it is stressful, when the work is particularly challenging. Sometimes you have to take it day by day, but before you know it it’s the end of the year.”
Pena said she was fortunate at UNLV as an undergraduate to have double majors. “My biology major really helped me with my classes and having a second major (in psychology) at the same time showed me how important it is to focus on what you’re doing.” Focusing, she notes, avoids wasted time, which can be the difference between success or failure in medical school.
Very aware of how donors, teachers and others have helped her pursue her dream of becoming a doctor —
she says a high school biology teacher generated her love for the subject —
Pena became vice president of the medical school’s new Latino Medical Student Association to help others with thoughts of becoming physicians. “We’re mentoring Hispanic undergraduates at UNLV, sharing what we know about getting ready for medical school. In the future, we’ll get more involved in the Latino community, provide screenings and preventive education.”
With women now making up just about half of the students in the nation’s medical schools —
2017 was the first year that just over 50 percent of new students were female —
Pena thinks that the presence of more females in medicine is positive.
“I do think that women bring a difference perspective to medicine. I think women bring a warmer approach to patient care that has not always been there. Recently, there has been a change to include behavioral sciences as part of the requirements to get into medical school. I think the goal of this is to emphasize the importance of getting to know patients as people and not as their illness. I’d like to think women played a role in helping bring this change in the way medicine will be practiced.”