When Alejandra Durán started 9th grade at an Atlanta-area high school she was overwhelmed by culture shock. She had no friends, spoke very little English, and was bewildered by the crush of students dashing in all directions as school bells signaled the start of a new day.
It was far removed from the rural village in Michoacán, Mexico that had been her home for the first fourteen years of life.
“People here talk about living in poverty, but they have no conception of living in homes with dirt floors and no running water... they just don't understand,” Alejandra said. “When I started school in the U.S. I was scared by all the new experiences. But I remember how special it made me feel when a teacher assigned me a locker. It was Alejandra's locker, my locker, and for some reason it made me so happy.”
Alejandra is a petite young woman with big brown eyes and a huge smile that lights up her face as she talks. She is the oldest of five children her single-parent mother brought to the U.S. in 2005. Undocumented, the family faced an uncertain future until President Obama changed their world with the implementation of his DACA program in 2012.
Today, Alejandra's future looks very bright indeed. In December of 2014, she graduated with honors from Armstrong State University with a degree in chemistry. She scored well in her MCAT and has been accepted into the Stritch School of Medicine at Loyola University in Chicago. Last summer she served an internship at Stritch where she and other students shadowed doctors and learned about health disparities in the Chicago area. In the meantime, she works as a manager for a regional staffing company.
“I want to become an OB/GYN doctor and work in rural America,” she said. “We live in a first-world country but there are still many women in the U.S., especially in minority and immigrant communities who have little or no access to quality health care. Many preventable diseases such as cervical cancer are a big problem for them and I want to make a difference in their lives.”
Like most immigrant children who are forced to learn English on the fly, Alejandra's academic success started slowly but picked up speed as her language skills improved. Her mother's job as a migrant laborer meant the children had to attend four different schools their first four years in the U.S.
“By my senior year, I was making very good grades but due to my status I did not believe I could do anything extraordinary with my life, such as being a doctor. Until a teacher, Ms. Holland made me realize my potential” Alejandra remembers. “Ms. Holland said 'Hey, you're pretty smart. Where are you going to college?' She didn't know I was undocumented and had never really considered attending college as a possibility.”
Then Alejandra met Melody Rodriguez, the Hispanic student recruiter for Armstrong State University, and learned about the Goizueta Scholarship Fund. Established by Roberto C. Goizueta, the late CEO of The Coca-Cola Company, this scholarship is designed to increase the number of students of Hispanic/Latino origin who enroll and complete their undergraduate degrees at Georgia universities.
“With the Goizueta fund, I was able to pay about 90% of my academic costs,” Alejandra said. “With my job in a local restaurant and the extra money I made after starting my own clothing and alterations business, I was able to work my way through school.”
Melody Rodriguez was impressed by Alejandra’s persistence in following her dream.
"Bright students like Ale face tremendous obstacles to reach their dreams. However, Ale was one of those that always had a great attitude and arose to challenges with maturity. I remember her thinking about changing her Chemistry major when she couldn't pass an Organic Chemistry class. She had a choice: take the easy road and change her major to a less challenging one, or retake the class and overcome this obstacle. I am so glad she stuck to her dream, and now is steps away from becoming a medical doctor. She taught all of us a lesson: If Alejandra Duran can do it, anyone can!"
While juggling academic and work responsibilities, Alejandra still found time for extra curricular activities.
“In 2010, I was a founding member of the SIGMA IOTA ALPHA sorority at Armstrong,” she said. “As the first campus sorority represented by Latina women, we sponsored and took part in events that changed the way other students perceived Hispanic cultures and Hispanic students on campus.”
Asked about role models, Alejandra puts her mother at the top of her list.
“My mother is a remarkable woman,” Alejandra said. “She has raised five children all by herself, always sacrificing, never complaining. She told me a “good attitude” was the most important thing I could possess. She says 'You're not a victim. Things don't happen to you. No matter what your situation, your attitude controls the outcome.'”
Getting accepted into med school is only the first part of the uphill climb Alejandra faces today.
“Since I am a DACA student, I don't qualify for any federal or state financial aid, which will make it extremely difficult to find the funding for medical school which is estimated to cost $200,000,” she said.
Alejandra is setting up a “gofundme.com” account which is a website where people can donate to any cause they deem worthy of their support. She is writing her story and uploading a video to acquaint people with her goals.
To further publicize her efforts Alejandra plans to visit Chicago and other cities this spring to ask for help on the streets. “I am in the process of making a banner and I will be carrying it around Chicago in the hopes that I can make people aware of my situation and find the help that I need somewhere,” she said. “I know this sounds a little crazy but big dreams require big efforts.”
For more information about her gofundme account or to contact Alejandra, please write to email@example.com