Editor’s note: There was little in her background to suggest Vanessa Armendariz could become a doctor. But as she was growing up, mentors from similar circumstances made her dream seem possible. As part of our occasional series, “What’s Your Story?” Armendariz explains why she wants to be a primary care physician for people in low-income communities like her own.
Like any child, I was terrified of going to the doctor. But as a child of a low-income family in Stockton, my reasons were different.
I wasn’t afraid of a shot. Instead, I dreaded the hours-long waits and seeing my parents struggle to afford the visits. I couldn’t stand my family feeling unheard or helpless.
I wanted to change that for families like mine, so I decided to become a doctor.
But in high school, I was told that as a low-income Latina, my chances of getting pregnant were higher than going to college. My mother was pregnant at 16, and no one in my family had attended college, so it was hard to argue those statistics.
Then, my parents were caught selling drugs to support our family. My mother continued to support my dream, but it seemed impossible. That changed when I found a program that introduced disadvantaged students to medicine through mentoring and visits to our regional health centers.
I interacted with physicians I could relate to. They came from low-income, minority backgrounds and were passionate about giving back. I realized that if they could do it, so could I. I excelled academically and graduated high school as valedictorian. I was even accepted to my dream school, Johns Hopkins University, on a scholarship. There, I met world-renowned physicians, traveled to Honduras and mentored Latino youth. My students, many of whom were undocumented, gang-affiliated, or from low-income households, reminded me of myself.
I met students like my brothers, who were capable but never attended college because they felt compelled to provide for their families. Many children of low-income families have this mindset. The only way to change it is to help them believe they can pursue their goals and to show them how. That’s what mentors from difficult backgrounds who have achieved their dreams can do. When we inspire and challenge our young people of color, they achieve much more than they’ve imagined.
Today, I work at the San Joaquin Medical Society in Stockton, a job that includes facilitating the very program that got me started. I will apply to medical school this summer.
I hope to return to the San Joaquin Valley to practice medicine and to help more families trust their doctors, rather than fear them; to deliver quality care — regardless of income, or language, or the struggles they’ve faced. If more young people of color get the kind of help I did, the future of health care in all communities will be brighter.
Listen to the story: