MCW Student Works to Inspire Other Students From Underrepresented Backgrounds to Overcome Challenges, Achieve Their Dreams
There were plenty of obstacles that could have stopped Justin Perez, a first-year medical student at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW), from being where he is today. Born in a small city in Guanajuato, Mexico, and raised in Milwaukee, he and his family faced numerous challenges common in immigrant communities, many related to health.
“Typical health challenges that many encounter can include not being able to find a secure job that pays you well enough to seek medical attention and not being able to obtain health insurance,” Perez says.
Those realities hit hard when Perez was 10 years old and his grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and then again a few years later when his grandfather required open heart surgery. But being exposed to those challenges also piqued Perez’s interest in the field of medicine.
“I just got curious and at some point, decided maybe this is something that interests me and that I would pursue further,” he says.
Making connections through MCW Pathway Programs
Luckily, Perez says, he discovered the MCW Office of Student Inclusion and Diversity’s Pathway Programs.
“That pretty much solidified my decision to want to go into medicine,” he says.
At 16 years old, Perez joined MCW’s Apprenticeship in Medicine (AIM) program, which allows Milwaukee-area students from underrepresented groups to learn more about the field of medicine. He went on to earn a full-ride scholarship to Marquette University. While at Marquette, he joined MCW’s Student Enrichment Program for Underrepresented Professions(StEP-UP), which he participated in from his freshman to senior year. And during two of his summer breaks from college, Perez participated in the MCW’s Diversity Summer Health-Related Research Education Program (DSHREP).
Along the way he forged a connection with Jean Mallett, program manager for the Office of Student Inclusion and Diversity at MCW.
“I still give thanks to her for giving me so many opportunities,” Perez says. “She guided me through the programs and through the process as the time was coming for me to apply to medical school after my junior year.”
Forging relationships with Medical College of Wisconsin faculty
Perez also made many other connections at MCW even before medical school, including with Malika Siker, MD, associate professor of Radiation Oncology and associate dean for student inclusion and diversity.
“She’s been a really big influence so far,” Perez says. “I really appreciate all the amazing people I met through my relationship with MCW.”
All those experiences help him push boundaries that many in his south side neighborhood are unable to overcome, he shares.
“We often lack the preparation that some of our peers had growing up,” Perez says. “That kind of set the expectation that most of us were going to finish high school and be done there.”
Achieving the ‘American Dream’ as a Mexican immigrant
Perez pushed himself to keep excelling, graduating from Marquette University and being accepted to MCW. He did this while overcoming additional obstacles related to his status as a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient. Called “Dreamers,” these undocumented students face many challenges accessing higher education.
“From a positive perspective, after all the obstacles, it just makes me feel like it’s just that much greater of an achievement,” he says. “I think you just have to be really good at figuring out what’s available to you and making the most out of the opportunities that are accessible.”
The fact that Perez has been able to overcome those challenges and excel is something his family is extremely proud of.
“Growing up, my father always dreamed of an education, but unfortunately due to the circumstances of where he grew up in Mexico, that was not possible,” he says. “Both my parents left everything behind to come to the United States seeking the ‘American Dream’ that everybody talks about.”
Many times, Perez says, what ends up happening is that the dream becomes possible not for them but for their children.
“I’m just proud that through me and my siblings, having taken advantage of every opportunity that we’ve been given so far, they are seeing that dream come to fruition,” he shares.
As he begins his journey in medical school, Perez has remained connected to the community through his involvement in the Latino Medical Student Association (LMSA), the Saturday Clinic for the Uninsured, and the Student Health Initiative for Pipeline Program (SHIPP).
Volunteering for SHIPP has allowed him to mentor students in the Pathway Programs, while LMSA has helped him find a sense of community at MCW.
“I think that definitely helps in terms of finding a community here,” Perez says. “It’s a big group of us who are striving for success and pushing each other every day to keep moving forward along this difficult journey, which I think is very empowering.”
In addition to those activities, he also takes the time to tutor middle school students from the north and south sides of Milwaukee.
“It’s a very formative time in their development, and I just want to be there as a role model and support system in their own journey, being an example of people who look like us succeeding despite what other people might tell you,” Perez says.
In terms of the future, Perez says he’d like to work as a physician with marginalized populations who are less represented in medicine, while also continuing to mentor others.
“Being a physician will give me even more merit and place me in a better position to better mentor and advise others,” he says. “I just want to be an example for others and demonstrate that we belong, and if you really set your mind to it, you can do it too.”