As a DACA recipient, barriers to a loan could derail my plans to join the field of public health during COVID-19

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Mariana Benitez stands outside facing the camera and holding the flag of Venezuela, where she was born.

Mariana Benitez holds the flag of Venezuela, where she was born. By the age of 4, her parents moved to Puerto Rico, and she would eventually come to Pittsburgh to pursue a bachelor’s degree in biology. But as a DACA recipient, she writes, she cannot obtain a loan to pay for the rest of her schooling. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Compelling personal stories
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My obsession with medicine started when I was 7. I remember the moment: It’s the school’s Christmas play. I’m dressed in a doctor’s coat with white gloves on. I’m the doctor who is supposed to cure Santa of a cold so he can deliver the presents. I'm disappointed because I feel that being a doctor is not that special; I was just there to cure a man. Wait, it’s a person who brings happiness to the entire world? It’s Santa!

When I finally cure Santa and save Christmas, the crowd erupts into cheers and children scream. “Thanks for saving Santa.” That’s when I realize that doctors are important.

I discovered my calling then, and I’ve rediscovered it time and time again without the involvement of Santa and despite many difficulties with my immigration status and other personal obstacles.

Now amid the pandemic, as my passion is once again reignited and I feel like it’s needed more than ever in the world, I find myself at a crossroads in my journey.

I was born in Venezuela. By the age of 4, my parents moved to Puerto Rico due to political tensions in our native country.

When I was in middle school, I remember one day I came home from school and my mom told me her sister had been diagnosed with lupus. I could see how badly it affected my mom’s family in Venezuela and especially my mom who couldn’t physically be there for her sister.

I googled the disease and learned it is an autoimmune disease. It sparked my interest. How is it possible for your own body, the one that is made to protect you, to turn against you? Once again, I reflected on my choice of career, and I decided that I want to learn more about the functions of the immune system and help people who have autoimmune diseases.

Time passed, and my journey eventually brought me to Pittsburgh to pursue a bachelor’s degree in biology. I immersed myself in classes related to the immune system. I decided to study pathogenic microbiology, immunology and diseases that change the world.

I attended La Roche University because it was the only college at the time that allowed me to send materials after the deadline. I could only submit my applications later because my DACA papers were coming after the official deadline.

Still, there were continuing challenges. Because of my DACA status, I couldn’t find any available internships willing to take me. I found other ways to get experience by appealing to advisers and taking some of the most difficult classes available to delve deeper into the research I am passionate about.

I believe that developing vaccines that will eradicate possibilities of new diseases (e.g., Zika), mutations of viral diseases (e.g., the flu) and former diseases (e.g., tuberculosis) is crucial to a healthy society.

My dream is to work in public health. And I feel the dream is so close. I am one year away from completing my master’s degree in infectious diseases, and I would love to enter the field when it appears my knowledge and skills may be most relevant and needed.

I want to be able to learn how immigration patterns, climate change and conflicts affect the health of millions and how to provide better services for those in need. I want to analyze data and medical history to find the origins of a disease and evaluate methods to contain it.

But, as a DACA recipient, I cannot obtain a loan to pay for the rest of my schooling. Most of my family members are immigrants. Therefore, it makes it difficult to find a cosigner or for them to be able to get loans as well.

Right now, amid the pandemic, covering schooling expenses through work, when a lot of businesses are shut down, is not possible. And I have lost all hope to find a scholarship. So I am resorting to extreme means of crowdfunding, but this is not a sustainable solution.

I and many other immigrants work so hard to obtain the dream here in America. But to contribute to society to the fullest, we need better support for our educational pursuits and the basic needs that must be met for us to meet those goals.

Mariana Benitez sits on steps outside, facing away from the camera.

"I hope to find a pathway to graduation and make the difference I’ve always dreamt of making at a time when global public health needs are most dire," writes Mariana Benitez. "And I hope my story will inspire change in policy and attitudes that will help immigrants like me achieve their dreams." (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Despite balancing stress from my immigration status and lack of financial support, I have been able to obtain a 3.5 GPA, keep a part-time job, doing lab work on HIV, all while having a full-time class load. I would like to keep this momentum up to complete my master’s program and go even further to quickly find a job in my field.

Ever since I was a young girl, it has been my dream to work in the healthcare and public health field. While it has not always been easy as an Afro-Latina DACA recipient, I have been granted a number of opportunities that have paved my way to getting to where I am today. And I have not squandered those opportunities.

But now my dream of serving in the medical field and helping people is in jeopardy. I hope to find a pathway to graduation and make the difference I’ve always dreamt of making at a time when global public health needs are most dire. And I hope my story will inspire change in policy and attitudes that will help immigrants like me achieve their dreams.

Mariana Benitez is an Afro-Latina woman of Venezuelan-Cuban descent hoping to complete a master’s program, studying infectious diseases. If you want to send a message to Mariana, email firstperson@publicsource.org.

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