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Med student talks undocumented experience

With end of DACA program, first-year med student Perla '15 MD'21 future in US is uncertain

Krissia Rivera Perla ’15 MD’21, a first-year student at the Alpert Medical School, spoke about her experiences as an undocumented student at the Medical Student Networking Event Saturday.

Perla is one of approximately 100 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients enrolled in medical school across the United States. Since President Trump ended DACA earlier this year, her ability to become a doctor is in jeopardy.

“Born in El Salvador, I immigrated to Silver Spring, Maryland, when I was eight years old. A few years later, I became aware of my undocumented status,” she told the audience.

In her first meeting with her counselor as a high school senior in 2010, she learned that she might not be able to attend college, her lifelong dream.

“I remember that being a very heartbreaking conversation, after knowing that I had worked really hard, and that my hope and dream was to go to college: It didn’t matter where — just to go to college.”

Perla’s undocumented status made it difficult to access financial aid at many schools.  She typed in “all zeros” for her social security number, which received questions from some schools. In the end, she only received financial aid from four or five schools out of the twelve that accepted her. She ultimately decided to come to Brown.

At Brown, Perla didn’t think medical school would be a possibility. The bulk of financial aid for medical school comes from federal loans, and she was not eligible for any federal aid because she was undocumented. “I know people who got into medical school but couldn’t go because of that,” she said in an interview with The Herald.

However, the University supported her transition into medicine, despite the uncertainty of the situation. After working closely with the administration at Health Careers, Perla applied and was accepted to the Med School.

Growing up, Perla saw the way undocumented people often lacked access to adequate healthcare, which inspired her to go into medicine. She remembers a friend her age who had fainting spells but never went to the hospital because he was terrified of being deported. “Health should not be a commodity,” Perla told The Herald. “It should be a human right.”

With the arrival of DACA in 2012, Perla said she not only felt overwhelming relief but also was able to perform clinical research at Johns Hopkins University for two years, an experience that sparked her interest in neurology and neurosurgery.

With the repeal of DACA, opportunities like this are no longer available to undocumented students. Perla is unable to continue onto residency, as undocumented people are not legally allowed to work. “I will graduate from medical school after four years of hard work and caring for patients, have an MD, but I cannot work in the United States,” she said.

There are approximately six DACA students currently in residency in the United States. “We keep breaking glass ceilings only to find more,” Perla said.

Associate Dean for Medical Education Allan Tunkel said the transition from medical school to residency is the biggest challenge with undocumented medical students in the United States. This inability to access residency programs halts the progression of a doctor’s medical career: “When students graduate from medical school, they are medical doctors, … but they are not able to practice independently. They have to do a residency in a specific discipline in order to be able to practice.”

Despite this roadblock, the Medical School will continue to accept applications from DACA students, Tunkel said. “We would love to continue to take wonderful DACA students into the medical school who we feel will be outstanding doctors,” Tunkel said. For undocumented MDs to move into residency, there needs to be policy change at the federal level, he added.

For Perla, the uncertainty of this situation is difficult. “No matter how well I do, it’s all in the hands of one piece of paper that needs to be signed,” she said.

But, she said, she compartmentalizes her stress in order to keep going forward, focusing on hope and possibility. “That’s what keeps me going. There’s this hope that I could be a doctor in the United States. And that’s always been the case. If there is hope, I will continue to work hard.”

Part of Perla’s hope is for Washington to pass a DREAM act that “provides equal opportunity for everyone to contribute to this country” and doesn’t benefit some undocumented individuals over others. She urges people to see the situation from a “humanistic perspective, not a political perspective” and contact their legislators to push to pass the DREAM act.

At Brown, there has been an outpouring of support for Perla and her endeavors. After attending the Defend DACA Rally at the Rhode Island State House with Perla, a group of medical students reached out and asked how they could continue to help her.

The students coordinated with Joseph Diaz, associate dean for diversity and multicultural affairs, to give Perla a platform to share her story. The students also created special pins in support of undocumented people that they distributed at their white coat ceremony later that afternoon.

“For medical students, getting your white coat is pretty symbolic, and you wear a lot of pins that show patients, colleagues and healthcare professionals that you worked for something. It’s definitely a way to show your support for different patient populations,” said Vivian Chan GS, a first year medical student.

For Perla, there is no question about moving forward, despite the circumstances. “As I wear my white coat, I will acknowledge the privilege it imparts, and the great honor it is to be inducted into the medical community,” she said in her speech. “However, simultaneously, I will wear my white coat knowing that my future as a physician is uncertain.”

The conversation around the challenges undocumented people face in the U.S. will continue at the medical school in coming weeks. The Med School’s Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs will sponsor an upcoming panel on “immigration law to educate and equip healthcare and social service providers” Oct. 23.


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