Nursing Student Aspires to Life Outside his 'Comfort Zone'

RWJF Scholar overcomes poverty and other hurdles to break barriers as a Latino nurse.

    • May 1, 2013

Luis Sanchez’ remarkable life story is, in essence, a retelling of the American Dream, but with a new twist: the son of impoverished immigrants grows up to be … a nurse.

Born 24 years ago to young Mexicans who risked their lives to improve their lot in the United States, Sanchez excelled in school despite linguistic, financial, and cultural barriers. He earned a full scholarship to college and, later, won an award from New Careers in Nursing, a project funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), to get a bachelor’s of science in nursing at New York University (NYU).

Sanchez, who graduates this month, is entering the field on a personal and professional high note: he was recently named NYU’s Distinguished Accelerated Nursing Student for the Class of 2013, and he will soon become a published author. The article he co-authored about men in nursing was recently accepted for publication in a respected nursing journal.

In two short decades, Luis Sanchez has come a long way from his humble start in life.

That journey began before he was born, when Olga Vera, a Mexican teen, boarded the back of a dark, crowded truck and was smuggled into the United States with her mother. She narrowly averted a demand for marriage from one of her escorts, moved into a crowded two-bedroom apartment in rural Oregon, and found a job as a day laborer picking fruit.

Soon after her arrival, Vera met Jose Sanchez, a fellow Mexican migrant. The pair fell in love, got married, and—after a rough patch in which they had to live out of a van—found stable housing in a home with other families in Hubbard, Ore. Luis arrived, Sanchez continued to work in agriculture, and Vera transitioned into gardening. Vera’s mother cared for Luis and, eventually, his four siblings while their parents worked.

“It kind of feels like tall tales, but this stuff really happened,” Sanchez says. “I’m extremely grateful for what my parents have sacrificed to ensure our opportunity to go to school and do what we love.”

And caring for others, it turned out, is what Sanchez loves.

An aspiring nurse practitioner, Sanchez developed a passion for health care when his beloved grandmother experienced complications of diabetes, including heart trouble and kidney failure. He felt helpless watching her deteriorate and, after her death, wished he could have done more to prolong and improve her life.

He decided to pursue a career in health care so he could help other families in similar situations, and settled on nursing during a college trip to Central America. While there, he volunteered on a mobile health care unit with a team of providers, but it was the nurses’ holistic approach that inspired him. “I was very focused on the medical field,” he says. “But then I got the opportunity to travel to Honduras during spring break… and I came to see nursing at its finest.”

A Different Route

Nursing—a profession dominated by White women—is indeed an exceptional choice for a Latino man. Fewer than 4 percent of the nation’s registered nurses are Latinos, according to the 2008 National Sample Survey of Registered Nurses. And fewer still are male. One deterrent to Latino men in nursing could be the cultural tradition of machismo, which associates masculinity with strength and virility but not caring and nurturing. It’s a tradition with which Sanchez is intimately familiar: “Nursing is not ‘manly’ work,” he says, “and there has been this pressure in my life to choose physically demanding work over ‘feminine’ indoor jobs.”

But Sanchez is used to breaking stereotypes. As a child, he rejected socio-cultural expectations to marry young, have children, and get a low-wage job. Instead, he focused on his studies. He was an “outcast” as one of the few Mexican-Americans in his school’s honors classes, but the experience, and his passion for health and health care, motivated him to work hard and break through the “machismo pressures” of his culture. “I’ve been 40 since I was 14,” he quips.

The effort paid off. He won full tuition from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to Portland State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in public health. He then entered an accelerated program at NYU, where he is earning his bachelor’s degree in nursing. He was recently accepted into NYU’s adult primary care nurse practitioner dual-degree program, and plans to work in an acute care setting before returning to school to complete his master’s.

He isn’t quite sure what his future will look like, but he does know that he will devote his life to caring for others and reducing health disparities. “I have this small fear of being in a place of comfort and complacency, of having some $80,000-a-year job and just having a family and settling down, and that’s it,” he says. “I don’t want to do that … I’m committed to giving back to that generation that came before me.”

In short, Sanchez is most comfortable defying expectations and giving back—as a stellar student, as the hard-working son of Mexican immigrants, and as a male nurse. He’s never lived in a safe, ‘comfort zone,’ and in his version of the American Dream, he never will.

Luis Sanchez

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