May 3 2013
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Hard Work and Investing in Others Opens Opportunities

Felix German Contreras, 22, of Atlantic City, N.J., credits his 2012 participation in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-funded Summer Medical and Dental Education Program (SMDEP), and his teachers at the Yale University site, for opening new doors to opportunities. A naturalized U.S. citizen, Contreras emigrated to the U.S. with his family at age 6. He will graduate from Atlantic Cape Community College next year and plans to attend Yale School of Medicine. Started in 1988, more than 21,000 alumni have completed SMDEP, which today sponsors 12 university sites with each accepting up to 80 students per summer session. This is part of a series of posts looking at diversity in the health care workforce.

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Living as an immigrant and student with only part-time employment is a daily battle. But I will never allow these challenges to slay my dreams. With so many struggles, I am often asked: “Felix, how do you do it?”

I cannot help but smile when I reply, as it is not a secret; nor do I believe it is a talent—it is simply a strong work ethic. I have realized the best things in life are the hardest to obtain.

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My doors to new unexpected opportunities were opened when a late-night online search in 2012 led me to the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program. I applied and was accepted at the six-week program’s Yale University site. It was there where I met mentors and students with similar aspirations to improve communities through medicine. Not only did the intensive program place me on a sure-footed path toward a health sciences career, my English improved tremendously through rigorous reading and writing. You can’t believe how much six weeks can give someone who is eager to receive. SMDEP exposed me to countless possibilities on the other side.

From there, I recently campaigned and was elected by my peers in March as President of the Environmental Club and the New Jersey State Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society. Currently, I am a junior at Atlantic Cape Community College, with a 16-20 credit semester to complete my degree in Biology, Sociology, and Health Services. These achievements can be summarized as ‘hard work.’

I am constantly seeking ways to improve my community. For years, I have dreamed of becoming a medical doctor as my ultimate career goal. However, I know this milestone will only serve as the beginning of my efforts to ensure quality health care delivery to underserved communities.

Access to quality care in communities nationwide is being impacted by physician shortages, and shortages of primary care doctors. Many individuals have attempted to persuade me to consider a more lucrative specialty, given the lower compensation and long hours associated with primary care. But that does not bother me nor reflect who I am. I realize it is not about standing out, or trying to get the best titles; it is about service and helping others who need help the most.

My gratification comes by helping others unleash their potential. As the wonderful mentors and teachers with SMDEP and my college have invested in my development, I, too, desire to “give back.” I believe we all have something amazing to contribute to improve our society. We simply need someone to motivate us.

My experiences have taught me to love life despite challenges. Most of all, I hope to be able to reflect on my days and know I have made a difference in my lifetime. 

SMDEP is a free six-week summer academic enrichment program that offers freshman and sophomore college students intensive and personalized medical and dental school preparation. It is sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation with direction and technical assistance provided by The Association of American Medical Colleges and The American Dental Education Association.

Tags: Careers, Mentoring, Diversity, Human Capital, Summer Medical and Dental Education Program, Diversity, Toward a More Diverse Health Care Workforce, Voices from the Field