The Road to Med School
Kenya Velez ’17 has a vivid memory from childhood – She is running down a street in Queens, New York with her mother. In Spanish, her mother implores passersby, “Can anyone speak English? Can anyone help my daughter with homework?” That person turned out to be Rose, a neighbor and beloved grandmother-figure who would transform a little girl into a woman who believed in herself.
Many years later when Rose was hospitalized for kidney failure, Velez watched as doctors gave Rose a second chance at life. That’s when she knew she wanted to become a doctor.
Says Velez, “If they were able to change Rose’s life, then I, too, can change someone else’s life.”
Nearly a decade later, Velez is a Dyson College alumna with an undergraduate degree in Chemistry and is one step closer to realizing her dreams.
A first-generation college student, her story is a journey of triumph on the familial, personal, and community level.
A family dream
Velez’s father came to the United States for a better life from the Mexican state of Morelos, one of sugar cane fields, adobe buildings, and missions with UNESCO World Heritage status. Abandoned by his parents at an early age, he was removed from school after the sixth grade by his grandmother so he could work and provide for the home. As the years progressed, he spent some time in the military, and then immigrated to New York, where he was initially homeless and slept in parks, with only a few dollars in his pocket. He persisted, finding work and shelter, and soon realized his dream of becoming a US citizen.
Velez’s parents both hail from impoverished Mexican states, and they did not have the good fortune of attaining a high level of education. Nevertheless, they always recognized their daughter’s intelligence and ambition, and her dreams would become their dreams, too, as a family.
When researching colleges, Velez applied to many in the New York metro area, but was drawn to Pace because she felt she would be valued as an individual rather than a nameless student in a vast sea, a critical factor on her path to medical school. When she received her acceptance letter, her parents were immensely proud and united in supporting their daughter.
Velez had many anxieties about the transition from high school, since her parents did not go to college and thus were not able to guide her. She wondered if she would receive proper guidance. Would she fit with a particular group? Would she even be able to graduate in four years?
At Pace, a community familiar with first-generation students welcomed her.
Chemistry Professor JaimeLee Rizzo gave her the confidence to succeed, inviting her early on in her studies to be part of her research team, co-presenting with her at conferences, and helping her manage the Chemistry Club first as treasurer and later as president. Says Velez, “the best thing that came out of Pace is Dr. Rizzo. Not only was she the mentor I always wanted to have when I attended college, but she became a lifelong friend.”
Rizzo has high praise for Velez as well, describing her as “one of the most dedicated, dependable, hard-working students I have encountered as a professor at Pace.”
It turns out that Velez was not only highly accomplished as a student, but also very active outside of the classroom.
During her four years, Velez served as an ambassador for the Pediatric Cancer Foundation and completed two internships, one working with special needs children at Teachers College at Columbia University, and another alongside medical students at SUNY Optometry. Further, she was inducted into Dyson College’s prestigious Society of Fellows, as well as into other honor societies.
Velez has applied to medical school and is taking a gap year. In the interim, she has participated in a clinical research project at Teachers College Columbia University and completed an internship at Einstein Community HealthCare Outreach, part of Albert Einstein Medical School, as a Spanish interpreter. This past September, she began work as a Research Associate in the Emergency Department at New York University Langone Health, and plans on working on other clinical research projects elsewhere. Her interests lie in pediatric rehabilitation and ophthalmology.
Best wishes to the future doctor Velez. The realization of her dreams, and that of her family, Professor Rizzo, and the entire Department of Chemistry, is soon within reach.