Andrea, 26, and Maria Jesus, 27, are sisters who share a common dream: to become doctors and scientists who help people live long, healthy lives. Growing up as gifted students, the Vasquez sisters each began medical school as teenagers, but due to political and economic turmoil in their home country of Venezuela, their medical school training sputtered out.
In 2020, they were forced to abandon their education and home, pushed to seek out a new life in the United States. Three years later, they are on track for an Ivy League degree and are among a group of 30 Scholars from 16 Hispanic Serving Institutions being honored by the American Heart Association this month.
Maria Jesus’ first memory of arriving in the United States is of feeling sad and overwhelmed.
“It was very challenging to leave our home and move to a new country; and be forced to quit our dream,” Maria Jesus said. “When we first arrived, we thought it would be very difficult to continue our education here because we had to learn the language, stabilize our immigration status and didn’t have our paperwork or transcripts from our school in Venezuela. Our dreams felt so far away.”
The sisters struggled when they first arrived. They were forced to live apart for the first time, each sister living in separate boarding homes in Jersey City; Maria with their parents, and Andrea with a family friend.
Then, in March 2021, the Secretary of Homeland Security, Alejandro N. Mayorkas, designated Venezuela for Temporary Protected Status (TPS), on the basis of extraordinary and temporary conditions that prevented nationals of Venezuela from returning safely. This new immigration status made the sisters eligible for a social security number, legal employment, protected them from deportation, and opened the possibility to access higher education.
Suddenly, the Vasquez sisters’ dream found new life.
“We quickly learned that we would have to adapt to a new culture and a new environment.” Andrea said. “We came with a mission to continue our education, so we decided to learn English as fast as possible. When we came here, we weren’t able to hold a conversation so we spent six months teaching ourselves English by watching several TV series, joining free online classes, and watching anything we could find on YouTube. When the TPS announcement came, we were ready to apply for school.”
In March 2021 the sisters felt confident enough in their language skills and hopeful their TPS would be approved. They enrolled at Hostos Community College in the Bronx and began classes in August. The sisters chose the nursing program at Hostos Community College because it is known as one of the best and affordable nursing programs in the city.
Once at Hostos, the sisters’ talents were quickly identified. They were invited to apply for the NextGen Public Health 2+2+2 Scholarship Program, which has opened a pathway toward a Master of Public Health from Columbia University. Within three years of arriving in the country the sisters are now enroute to an Ivy League degree.
After receiving the NextGen scholarship, Andrea and Maria Jesus decided to reconnect with their mentor and former medical school professors in Venezuela. Together, they published two research papers in magazines in Venezuela and Ecuador. The sisters have also been involved in two children and family health programs in the Bronx: the Bronx Community Health Network at Montefiore Hospital and the Families United in Education at Hostos.
Their success emboldened them to apply for a new distinguished scholarship opportunity from the American Heart Association, the Hispanic Serving Institutions Scholars Program.
On April 13, the sisters will be two of the 30 undergraduates being honored at the annual Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI) Scholars Symposium on the campus of Montclair State University, less than 20 miles away from the boarding homes where they rented rooms in Jersey City.
The HSI Scholars Program invests in aspiring Latino and Hispanic researchers and health care professionals. Undergraduate students enrolled in biomedical and health sciences at HSIs participate in academic and career-enriching experiences for a full academic year. Scholars, with the support of the American Heart Association, and committed and impactful mentors, learn about health disparities in Latino and Hispanic communities, how cultural sensitivity can provide safe and reassuring clinical spaces, and how inclusivity is essential in science.
This program is funded by a financial grant from Quest Diagnostics as part of its Quest for Health Equity (Q4HE) initiative, focused on addressing healthcare disparities that impact underserved communities across the U.S. Quest Diagnostics also supports the American Heart Association’s HBCU Scholars program.
“I would never see myself in this position two years ago,” Maria Jesus said. “We left our dreams in our country and we started a new journey here and we built a new dream here. It’s amazing to accomplish this with my sister. I couldn’t be more grateful.”
While Andrea and Jesus Maria’s dream of becoming doctors and researchers seems to be back on track, their future in this country is not guaranteed. To attend medical school, they will need to gain a permanent immigration status, which the TPS does not provide.
“Medicine has been our dream since we were children. We’ve been on this path for a long time,” Andrea said. “We’ve been gaining this knowledge to help people and make a large impact. We won’t give up. If in the future I can help people here or in my home country, I will be happy. We just want to be able to give back to this world what it has given to us so much.”