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Alumna Overcomes Adversity, Achieves Medical School Dreams

By June 6, 2016Alumni
Luisa Maria De Souza ’13

To Luisa Maria De Souza ’13 education was critical to overcoming life’s adversities. The 24-year-old, Cuban native, is set to begin medical school in the fall at Penn State, a dream she’s relentlessly pursued since she was 4 years old.

Making her dream a reality was not an easy feat. When she was 4, her father passed away from multiple myeloma, leaving her mother to raise two children under the devastating economic hardships that Cuban citizens face – lack of food, water, electricity and critical medications for the sick.

“Growing up in Cuba gave me a sense of appreciation, and resiliency,” Luisa said. “It gave me grit.”

In search for a better life, Luisa, her brother and mother attempted to escape Cuba twice. Once when she was 7 years old and again when she was 9 years old, but both attempts proved to be too risky for the family. Eventually when Luisa was 12, her mother found safe and legal passage into the United States.

“When I arrived in the United States, I didn’t know English, I felt like I was on another planet,” she said. “But I was determined to excel in school and go to college, so in addition to my homework, I’d stay up at night expanding my vocabulary with a Spanish-English dictionary.”

Her nights studying paid off, in 2009 not only did she graduate valedictorian from Mater Academy Charter High School, but also received honors at Miami Dade College, where she jointly obtained her associate’s degree as a dual enrollment student.

“I know that here [in the United States] I had a fair shot, an opportunity others don’t have, and so I took it,” she said. “It wasn’t easy, but making dreams come true is never easy.”

During the 2008 economic recession, Luisa and her mother were practically left without a place to live and a steady income. And months later, her mother underwent full hip replacement surgery.

Wanting to stay close to her mother and help with the household expenses, she came across St. Thomas University, where she received a full tuition scholarship and became a Science and Mathematics Fellow Scholarship recipient.

“When I started at St. Thomas, it was during a tough period in my life, especially economically, and the university was very supportive,” she said. “I had a connection with the faculty and staff; a connection I wouldn’t have had at a big university. If it weren’t for the support of my teachers and staff members at St. Thomas, I don’t know if I would have made it through.”

Most importantly, she said, at STU she didn’t feel like a number.

“You’re treated as a person. The staff and faculty know you by your name, not your social security number – they know your aspirations, your struggles, your strengths and weaknesses.”

On what led her to the medical field, she says it was a slow metamorphosis that began when her father was diagnosed with cancer.

“The first time I realized I was interested in medicine was when my father was sick,” she said. “He had just received chemotherapy and was very thin, barely recognizable, and my first instinct was to care for him, be his little doctor. I’d cover him in bandages and poke him with crayons as if they were syringes. That was the first time I felt the need to help others.”

Years later as an undergraduate, Luisa took advantage of the unique research opportunities at STU, which reinforced her interest in medicine.

“I was very lucky in being able to do a lot of research at the school of science,” she said. “Being on the [research] bench gave me the opportunity to scientifically explore a variety of investigation fields ranging from flowers to cancer. And doing research is the foundation of medicine.”

At 21 years old, she graduated STU with a bachelor of science in chemistry, a bachelor of science in biology, a minor in philosophy and a research specialization. She went on to receive a master’s degree in business administration with a specialization in health services administration at Florida National University while working part time at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with MARS Inc. researching cacao. Meanwhile, she also worked as a biology, chemistry and physics tutor at Miami Dade College.

Luisa received six medical school acceptance letters – Penn State, Indiana, Pittsburgh, Drexel, FIU and Arizona. She chose Penn State for two reasons: its focus on the humanities; and her fiancé, whom she met at STU during Calculus I, and is a second-year medical student at Penn State.

“Penn State was the first school in the nation to embed the study of humanities into its medical school curriculum,” she said. “That really appealed to me because I want to be more than a doctor who treats diseases, I want to treat people. And people are more than symptoms.”

This summer she will be splitting her time between interning at the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center researching melanoma, and finalizing her application to the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans, a highly-competitive, national merit fellowship that annually supports immigrants and children of immigrants who are pursuing graduate school in the United States.

Luisa was awarded the Dean’s Scholarship Award at Penn State, which covers half of her tuition, and begins medical school in the fall with plans of graduating in July 2020.

In recalling her time at STU, she said she experienced several fulfilling moments, but two stick out the most – her involvement in Amaryllis flower research, which is currently being prepared for publication, and her involvement with STU’s “Flavors of Nature,” a non-profit organization on a mission to educate the community about the benefits of organic food and products. Under her leadership role as director of operations, Flavors of Nature won first place in the 2012 STU Global Entrepreneurship Competition earning the program $5,000.

Her advice to current students: “Use the resources available to you at St. Thomas! Get out there and volunteer or intern in your field, experience what you want to do. Don’t be afraid. You cannot fully exploit your talents and confirm your passion in a certain field until you take yourself outside of your comfort zone.”

After graduating she plans on practicing internal medicine, having a big wedding, and eventually making her way back to Miami.

Marlen Lebish

Author Marlen Lebish

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