Fortune favors the bold. Learn to take risks and take chances that otherwise might terrify you. Get out of your comfort zone. Every time I have achieved something big or think I got lucky; I can pinpoint it back to taking a risk I would have otherwise not taken. And if I didn’t decide to risk it — whether it was just me speaking up, being present, volunteering my time to do something — I would not have ever ended up at my current situation.
Is the American Dream still alive? If you speak to many of the immigrants we spoke to, who came to this country with nothing but grit, resilience, and a dream, they will tell you that it certainly is still alive.
As a part of our series about immigrant success stories, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mario Lorenzana DeWitt, a DACA recipient, first year medical student at SUNY Upstate Medical University and former clinical researcher. His hometown is Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I arrived in the United States in 2001 and grew up in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Instantly, I felt like an outsider because not only was I in a new country, but I was also taking ESL classes, which differentiated me even more from my classmates and friends.
Even from a young age, it was apparent to me that we were always financially struggling. I remember that the first apartment I lived in was only one bedroom so my parents and I had to share a room. They were very transparent with me about our undocumented status, which made me feel like I always needed to have my guard up.
Sometimes, our bills went unpaid and it was not uncommon for some basic necessities to be shut off. My mom was working at a pizza place and my dad was working as a carpenter but moved towards painting houses. I was very grateful to them because even though we were very poor and constantly struggling, my parents always made sure to make it seem like everything was going to be ok.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell us the story?
My parents had good careers in Mexico. My mom was a civil engineer and my dad worked for the government. Holistically, the situation in Mexico was starting to decline as crime and corruption increased, it felt like it was infiltrating every corner. Adding to the desire to move was the fact that my dad’s family was in the United States and they talked about how great it is living in the US — how much opportunity there was and the typical “American Dream” spiel. With the situation looming and a promise for a better future for them and myself, my parents made the decision to come here.
In hindsight, I have felt so conflicted about this decision on behalf of my parents. I used to feel very angry at the way they immigrated. But as I mature, I can appreciate why my parents emigrated. I can say with absolute certainty it was all for me; they could have had a good life in Mexico, but their main attraction to America was to give me a better future. They have done absolutely everything to make sure I succeed here, most of the time at their own expense.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
I was only five when I came to the U.S. My parents did try to legally emigrate from Mexico at first but they kept running into obstacles. They sold absolutely everything we owned, that included all my toys like the Hot Wheels my dad collected for me and my stuffed animals that I adored. I was so devastated as any kid would be.
My parents crossed the border together and I was smuggled in the back of a car by coyotes — professional smugglers. I can recall it as a nightmare. I didn’t see my parents for maybe a week or so. I was alone, scared and uncertain the whole time. All I wanted to do was to be held by my parents, but instead I was staying with strangers who treated me like a dog. I don’t like talking about that part too much. I don’t even quite remember how we arrived in Tennessee, but I do remember that I knew things were going to be better when I was reunited with my family in Texas, which was the first step I took on United States soil.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
My Uncle Beto. I always visited his house and he would teach me things about American culture and describe places like New York City. My dad, my uncle and myself are huge Steelers fans and watching football with him made me feel so happy. He was always so joyful, even though none of us were living the “American Dream” that we imagined.
I have two distinct memories of him. The first one; he invited me over to his home and fed me and just wanted to make sure everything was ok. He shared how proud he was of me. The second memory was when he was in the ICU at Vanderbilt, which I used to work for. He told me about a doctor who was from Mexico that was one of his caretakers and how one day that would be me. Unfortunately, Uncle Beto passed away from diabetes complications shortly after his ICU stay. He was undocumented as well and could not afford dialysis.
I am grateful for my parents as well. They were also experiencing the same newness to a country and left everything familiar behind. No matter how much we struggled, they always put me as their priority. No matter how bad it got, they always comforted me. They are my biggest supporters and continue to work tirelessly to make sure I can achieve my dream.
These three people are my biggest motivators for becoming a physician.
So how are things going today?
Things today seem surreal. All my life I have had this dream of doing something that could potentially give my family stability. I didn’t know it would be me becoming a doctor. I had zero path in grade school, mainly due to the fact that I was undocumented. As I grew up, there were many times I felt unmotivated.
DACA was enacted in 2012, and I became a recipient around age 17. It was one of the best signs of relief, because it gave me a potential path, but it also made me realize I needed to have goals.
My family always stressed that I needed higher education, but when I did get accepted to college, I had no idea what I wanted to major in. I felt like I was letting people down. For the first time in my life, I had stability and what people would consider “status” but I wasn’t doing anything with it. I was undecided, had no passion and couldn’t manage to earn high grades because I was working full time to pay for tuition out of pocket.
The summer before my junior year, I had a pretty bad accident. I was changing my car oil and the jack buckled. I was pinned under my car for eight hours. I nearly lost my life, so that near death moment paired with my time in the emergency room and seeing the way the physicians and nurses took care of me sparked an interest in medicine.
When I was discharged from the ICU I could barely walk. In my free time, I researched what ER doctors do, and It was an epiphany. I wanted to do that. I told my parents that I was going to become a doctor even though my grades were terrible.
I talked to my advisor right away. He was supportive but warned me it was going to be an uphill battle because of my low GPA. I changed my major junior year and immersed myself into the medical world. I realized there are disparities and I had the potential to fix it. Changing my major added an extra year onto my studies. Throughout the additional time, I volunteered at clinics and worked in underserved communities, which affirmed over and over that it was my future. It went from a passion to an obsession. I wanted to do everything possible for the undocumented Hispanic community.
I graduated college in 2018, but I still had a lot of holes in my medical school application. People were politely trying to dissuade me — try nursing school, try something else — I heard it all. I decided to get more experience with medicine and worked at Vanderbilt University Hospital as a clinical researcher. Talking to patients and making connections is my love. Even though I don’t see myself as book smart, I am naturally skilled at the human interaction aspect.
I applied to medical school after two years away from college. It was expensive and I had to apply very specifically to institutions accepting DACA applicants. I eventually earned an interview with SUNY Upstate and was accepted. This is my first year in medical school and it is hard delaying gratifications, but after all that adversity, I feel like my hard work is paying off.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
When I was in college and volunteered for free clinics, I translated for patients. Now that I am in medical school one of my main focuses is to work towards a specialty that has boots on the ground and allows me to bring awareness to health care disparities. I am working on a research project that could advocate for more consideration of admission to DACA medical school applicants. Additionally, I serve as vice president of the Latino Medical Student Association and our chapter focuses on making future medical providers conscientious of healthcare disparities.
You have first-hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you suggest to improve the system?
- I want to make a pathway to citizenship possible. There are millions of people in the United States who searched for a better future and contributed to the economy. Many individuals pay taxes, have businesses, have families and communities that depend on them. My ideal plan would be to somehow grant people who have been here and abided by the laws to earn citizenship so they can continue to contribute to the US.
- Shorten wait times for those who applied legally and those who can contribute to the economy. Some wait times are ridiculously long. This is one of the biggest factors of people coming here illegally. As someone who did come here illegally, it has caused many hardships and mental anguish that I wish on no one.
- Protect Dreamers and have a plan for those left out of the original DACA program. I have met so many wonderful and successful people. We all want to be as American as you or any U.S. born citizen. We love this country as it has given us so many opportunities that our home countries would have never allowed. There are doctors, lawyers, nurses, teachers, and all kinds of hardworking people trying to contribute to our communities that have to also deal with the constant uncertainty of the ability to naturalize.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
- Don’t be scared of failure. Most of my life has been composed of failure. Some people like to avoid it and become comfortable in a stage of just doing enough not to fail. Some people are paralyzed because of it. Learn to take lessons out of failure but also learn to embrace it.
- Shoot for lofty goals. If I would have spoken to my 18-year-old self and told him what my aspirations are now, I think my 18-year-old self would look at me as if I were an alien. Shoot for the moon and have tangible small goals to pave the way towards the big goals. You might surprise yourself how close you can get, or even surpass them.
- Grind, and learn to embrace that it’s not always going to be fun. If you want something badly enough, dedicate all your energy to that. You will have to clock in countless hours if not years of work, which is exactly what I am doing now as a medical student. Tired, sleepless nights or constant arduous work is to be expected. If everything was fun and easy, then everyone would be successful.
- Fortune favors the bold. Learn to take risks and take chances that otherwise might terrify you. Get out of your comfort zone. Every time I have achieved something big or think I got lucky; I can pinpoint it back to taking a risk I would have otherwise not taken. And if I didn’t decide to risk it — whether it was just me speaking up, being present, volunteering my time to do something — I would not have ever ended up at my current situation.
- Remember why you started. If you are working towards a goal, remember what made you want to do it in the first place. There are so many days in college where I wanted to give up. There are days now in medical school where I don’t think I can do this. I have imposter syndrome, I feel left out when I have to study while others are acing exams, and I’m fatigued most of the time. In these hard times, I remind myself of the whose and whys; All of the hard work and sacrifice, all the potential good that can come from it, all the people who depend on me. Sometimes we need just the slightest push in the right direction.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
- The U.S. seems to be moving in the direction of unity after some rough years of division. I see more and more activism in so many flavors. People are starting to speak up and become passionate about disparities and injustices.
- COVID-19 has been devastating to all of us. Some of us have lost time, vacations, and opportunities, but some have also lost jobs and family members. Although this pandemic is terrible, it has illuminated many problems communities already faced financially and in the medical system. There is a huge push for more equity now. Many great people are stepping up and wanting to fix these problems. Those who have lost family members and those who haven’t now can appreciate how precious life is and can hopefully reunite and bring families closer together. Those who lost jobs and faced economic hardship are more motivated than ever.
- The push for diversity and inclusion has become such a big topic now. It’s helping people break barriers and bringing some amazing people into the spotlight. We are seeing so many people become “firsts” in positions that otherwise would have not been considered. Diversity is so important because it brings representation discussions aimed at tackling societal issues.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Dr. Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa is someone I would like to have a private meal with. He is a neurosurgeon who also comes from an undocumented background. His success is a testament to the fact that even though one may come from a disadvantaged group, with enough tenacity, you can overcome huge obstacles and break down barriers for future generations. I would love to meet an idol like him or even learn from him as a mentor.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!