San Jose

Meet the First Undocumented Med-School Student at UC San Francisco

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Dec. 4, 2014, 7:58 a.m.

San Fran­cisco — Col­lege ad­visers didn’t know what to say to Jirayut Lat­thivong­skorn. The premed stu­dent was about to gradu­ate from the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia (Berke­ley) and he wanted to go to med­ic­al school. But they’d nev­er heard of a med­ic­al school ad­mit­ting someone in his situ­ation. Was it even pos­sible?

“People who were sup­posed to have an­swers were telling us that they didn’t know how to help us,” said Lat­thivong­skorn, who was born in Thai­l­and and moved to the San Fran­cisco Bay area when he was 9 years old. “It felt dis­em­power­ing, very dis­cour­aging.”

So Lat­thivong­skorn and two oth­er un­doc­u­mented class­mates de­cided to do their own re­search. They called ad­mis­sions of­fices, ment­ors, and friends around the coun­try to see if they knew a fel­low “Dream­er” who had made it in­to med­ic­al school. No one did.

“It was very much like try­ing to find a uni­corn,” Lat­thivong­skorn said.

Al­though Cali­for­nia’s pub­lic uni­versit­ies have a policy of ad­mit­ting un­doc­u­mented stu­dents at the un­der­gradu­ate level, no such policy ex­ists for gradu­ate schools. It star­ted to seem un­likely that Lat­thivong­skorn would get in­to the school of his dreams: the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia (San Fran­cisco), one of the top-ranked med­ic­al schools in the coun­try.

Lat­thivong­skorn ap­plied to the school in 2012 after gradu­at­ing from UC Berke­ley. He didn’t get in, but that didn’t stop him. He ap­plied again last sum­mer, along with more than 7,000 oth­er as­pir­ing doc­tors. This time he got an in­ter­view. Then he got the ac­cept­ance call.

“It’s sur­real and crazy that I’m here even,” said Lat­thivong­skorn, who is fin­ish­ing up his first semester at UC­SF. He hopes to work as a doc­tor one day in poor, im­mig­rant com­munit­ies like his own. That doesn’t seem so far-fetched now.

His school is part of a small group of med­ic­al schools open­ing their doors to un­doc­u­mented stu­dents for the first time. Many used to throw away ap­plic­a­tions from these stu­dents, know­ing they wouldn’t qual­i­fy for fed­er­al loans, med­ic­al res­id­ency pro­grams, or phys­i­cians’ li­censes.

That star­ted to change in 2012, around the time Pres­id­ent Obama gran­ted tem­por­ary leg­al status to mil­lions of so-called Dream­ers. Last year, the Stritch School of Medi­cine at Loy­ola Uni­versity in Chica­go was the first to openly ac­cept ap­plic­a­tions from un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants who qual­i­fied for de­ferred ac­tion. The school ad­mit­ted sev­en of them this fall. Now, about a third of 119 med­ic­al schools sur­veyed ac­cept ap­plic­a­tions from un­doc­u­mented stu­dents, ac­cord­ing to the As­so­ci­ation of Amer­ic­an Med­ic­al Col­leges.

This group of stu­dents still can’t get fed­er­al loans or a phys­i­cian’s li­cense in most states, but they can leg­ally work, at least for now.

Ad­mis­sions of­ficers at UC­SF were ini­tially wor­ried about how Lat­thivong­skorn would pay for school, and if he would even be able to prac­tice medi­cine. They had nev­er ac­cep­ted a stu­dent without leg­al status, said Dav­id Wofsy, the med­ic­al school’s as­so­ci­ate dean for ad­mis­sions.

“Ul­ti­mately, we de­cided we had a here-and-now is­sue to deal with, and we wer­en’t go­ing to dis­crim­in­ate against people based on guesses about what might hap­pen in the fu­ture,” he said.

Luck­ily for Lat­thivong­skorn, Cali­for­nia had re­cently passed laws al­low­ing un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants to ap­ply for state-fun­ded fin­an­cial aid and stu­dent loans, and to ob­tain pro­fes­sion­al li­censes. His biggest obstacle now is the un­cer­tain fu­ture of Obama’s De­ferred Ac­tion for Child­hood Ar­rivals. If the next pres­id­ent ab­ol­ishes DACA, and if im­mig­ra­tion re­form re­mains stalled in Con­gress, then he can­not leg­ally work at a hos­pit­al as a med­ic­al res­id­ent.

That seemed far from his mind as he ana­lyzed slides of mi­cro­scop­ic heart cells dur­ing a re­cent class about heart dis­ease. The most im­port­ant thing now, he said, is to make sure he is not the ex­cep­tion. He and his two friends from Berke­ley have cre­ated a na­tion­al net­work of more than 300 un­doc­u­mented stu­dents who share their dream of be­com­ing doc­tors and nurses. The group, Pre-Health Dream­ers, will con­tin­ue reach­ing out to med­ic­al schools and show­ing stu­dents that their dream is not as crazy as it seems.

“We really are at that pivotal mo­ment when schools are now be­gin­ning to listen to us,” Lat­thivong­skorn said. “Stu­dents are put­ting them­selves out there and are shar­ing their stor­ies and are let­ting schools know that hey, as un­doc­u­mented stu­dents we have so much to con­trib­ute to these fields.”

Na­tion­al Journ­al re­cently vis­ited Sil­ic­on Val­ley to see how im­mig­ra­tion and tech­no­logy have trans­formed the San Jose area. In the com­ing weeks, Next Amer­ica will pub­lish a series of stor­ies about the people who are find­ing their place in Amer­ica’s wealth­i­est re­gion.

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