Meet Diana Andino, one of the first DACA recipients to graduate from medical school: 'I want to make an impact'

Diana Andino (Photo: Lukas Keapproth)

When 28-year-old Diana Andino walked across the stage at Loyola University’s Stritch School of Medicine a week ago Sunday, she became one of the first group of DACA recipients in the nation to graduate from medical school. In June, she’ll become the first (and only) DACA recipient to start a residency in neurology. When I asked her a few days after graduation how this felt, she let out a triumphant sigh: “Amazing.”

Formally known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, DACA allows children brought to the United States by their parents illegally as minors (in Andino’s case, from Ecuador) to apply for a renewable, two-year protection under the law. Since its inception in 2012, the program has paved the way for more than 800,000 kids of undocumented immigrants to obtain work permits and go to school. 

As a relic of President Obama, DACA has come under significant fire from President Trump and his base — disapproval that has manifested both in vitriolic tweets and legitimate attempts to rescind it by Congress. While the program still stands, threats to its existence haven’t ceased.

So what does all of this mean to Andino and the other five DACA recipients who just graduated from med school?

It means their experience has been unlike any other. As the first six DACA medical students (all at Loyola), they were forced to weave activism into academics, squeezing meetings with senators into interviews at hospitals. Not to mention they had to endure a series of overtly racist speeches (which, Andino tells me, “always seemed to happen the night before big exams”).

The fact that they prevailed despite it all is a master class in resilience, and a victory for undocumented immigrants everywhere. Now the next hurdle will be making it through residency, after which Andino and her peers will officially become the first DACA recipients to become doctors. But for now, at the finish line of a four-year long journey, Andino has just one thing on her mind: “Sleep!”

Photo: Courtesy of Diana Andino

Yahoo Lifestyle: Take us back to the beginning. Where were you before America? 

Diana Andino: I’m originally from Ecuador — Quito, which is the capital city. I was there until 2001. When I moved to Houston, Texas, where I grew up, I was 11. My dad had moved there about a year before that. There was a lot of stuff happening in Ecuador at the time. The economy, there was bankruptcy, and a lot of businesses were closing down. We got hit with that. So he saw the situation was really hard, and was able to get a visa to come to America. My mom and I came on tourist visas to join him.

What grade were you in at the time, and were you aware of your legal status?

I came for a couple months of seventh grade but my full first year was eighth grade. I wasn’t really aware. At that time, Houston was very immigrant friendly, we were able to get IDs and I was able to enroll in school, and once you graduated from school in Texas, then you could continue right to college and get an undergraduate degree, so all of that was OK. But just trying to get a job once you turn 16, that’s when you start noticing OK, maybe this isn’t that easy. I always knew immigration was an issue, but I didn’t realize how much until I needed to get a job and a driver’s license.

When did you decide you wanted to be a doctor?

It wasn’t until I went to college [at the University of Houston] that it all clicked. I was undeclared at first, but by my sophomore year I had started volunteering at a county hospital, and started taking some science classes at the same time. Houston is very diverse, and at that hospital 50 to 75 percent of people were Spanish speakers, so I volunteered there as a Spanish interpreter. That’s how I learned that medicine was my calling.

Did you feel like there was adequate medical care in that community?

Not really. Growing up, the only [medical] care that I knew was taking my parents to free clinics or health fairs that the church would put out. We never got to see a doctor or anything like that growing up.

So you graduated from the University of Houston in 2011 with a biology major and chemistry minor. Then President Obama passed DACA the next year. What happened then?

I applied right away and got my permit and everything by September of that year. Then I applied the following cycle for medical school and got in the first round, so I was able to start in the 2014 year. By this time I had taken all my prerequisites and done volunteer work and already taken the MCATs. I had just been waiting to have a work permit to be able to apply. 

Once you got into Loyola, were you able to apply for student loans?

As undocumented, DACA doesn’t grant us our status yet so we cannot access those funds. The way that we pay for school is we have an agreement with Illinois Finance Authority, which is with the state, where they lend us the money to pay for school and then we’ll pay it back and serve in an underserved area here after we’ve finished residency. So that was their agreement and that was how they give us the loans. We have to pay it back but we also have to fulfill the requirement of working in an underserved area.

But that’s what you wanted to do anyway, right?

Yes, that was never an issue. For me, I want to practice in hopefully a Spanish-speaking community hospital, where I can probably make the most impact with people who are underserved. I think that’s where I feel most at home and where I can have a better impact.

And your experience at Loyola, how has it been?

It’s been amazing. There have been a lot of really hard times, obviously, because it’s med school and it’s not easy, but they have made it an extremely supportive environment since day one. The admissions people, the dean, they have been super open and receptive. Whatever we need, they’ve been able to give us. They were the first medical school to admit DACA students and we were the first cohort (six of us). So it’s their first time going through something like this too. It’s kind of new for everyone.

The six of you must have been close. 

Since day one — we didn’t have to explain to each other what DACA meant. Our lives were very similar since we all moved to the states at [as young kids]. We had the same struggles, so we all knew exactly what each of us were feeling basically at every press conference. Our stories were very similar to each other.

When people in the government were discussing DACA publicly, did you lean on each other for support?

Any big announcement, any DACA news, we knew exactly what that meant. We all had each other’s backs as we went through it. Same with the interviews and applications for match, we didn’t know how it would work out for us given that we didn’t have a status, so we all relied on each other to see how we were doing and be that support system. [All six were matched].

Now that you’ve cleared this hurdle, what would you say was the biggest challenge?

Just navigating the way as the first [DACA recipients} to do this openly, that was very challenging. We were put at the forefront of it, and Loyola has given us a platform, unexpectedly, over the last four years. But we’re also still medical students, so trying to have a balance between those two roles of being medical students and trying to figure out what speciality we want to be, while at the same time  bringing a voice to the rest of the undocumented community and being a role model for the other students. Some of us would go talk to senators in Washington, D.C., or do other things like that, so it’s kind like having two parallel growth processes you’re going through. I think trying to balance that out the past four years has been challenging, but I think we did a really good job. 

I imagine one particularly tough day was when DACA was temporarily rescinded. Do you remember that day?

I was in surgical rotation that [day], but I knew something was going to happen because we had heard about it from insiders. So that day I did not bring my phone to the operating room, I left it, and I was just a normal medical student that day. But at the end of the day I opened my phone and I had all these missed calls and messages, and then I went back to being a DACA person. It was scary, but we knew it would happen at some point, so I think we were mentally ready but still in shock. We took 48 hours to mourn and then were like, “We have to get back to it again.”

In January the program was revived, and apparently the renewals will be issued soon. Where are you in the process?

We have to submit to get it renewed every two years. I submitted my renewal but I’m still pending. I haven’t received anything and it’s been three months. My permit expires in 2020, and I’m supposed to start residency. I’m thankful that I have a job to go to, but it’s all contingent that I get my approval. So I’m hoping for that to come sometime soon, hopefully this month. 

What is the hardest part now about being a medical school graduate who is also a DACA recipient?

Just not knowing what’s going to happen. This doesn’t give us any permanent residency or give us a pass for a green card, so always knowing that we’re still not safe is hard. I think that’s always in the back of our minds. We try not to worry about it, but some days are worse than others. But we just manage to get through and so far it has worked out so I think we all feel like things will be OK at this point. That we’ll be able to finish our residency and go from there.

Photo: Courtesy of Diana Andino

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