“So, how did you get into medical school?”
I have been asked this question in a situation that I had only beforehand seen on social media. We are in the middle of a modern-day Civil Rights movement, of which the tipping point was the murder of George Floyd. This event brought me back to the evening of September 19, 2019. Around the same time, there were many events reporting people of color for doing everyday activities. There had also been many police shootings where suspects were shot dead for acting “suspicious,” such as the shooting of Philando Castile back in 2016. I had a plan if I were ever racially profiled by the police. However, I never actually thought I would ever have to use it, especially after getting accepted into medical school.
My journey started years ago in Southern Mexico. I was raised by a strong, resilient, single mother who did everything to bring me up the best way possible, despite our difficult circumstances. When I was 12 years old, we immigrated to Utah for a better future. I had to learn to adapt to a new culture, language and system. I did not know how to fit in, so I thought I needed to do what other Mexican immigrant kids were doing and join the gang culture. I felt that society expected it of me. Fortunately, my mom and stepdad served as my moral compass and taught me the importance of making the right choices to reach my potential. As I increasingly focused on my academics and school involvement, my path diverged from the gang culture into one of endless possibilities. I found academic and community success as an Eagle Scout, Sterling Scholar for French, and even became a high school honors graduate.
When it was time to go to college, I realized that my immigration status would not provide me the same opportunities that my peers may take for granted. I found out how to get in-state tuition and obtain the necessary private funding because I was not eligible for FAFSA. In the end, I decided to prepare to apply to medical school despite my immigration status. An opportunity appeared in 2012, with the passing of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which allows individuals brought to the United States as kids and remained undocumented to get deportation deferral and a social security card for employment. Despite the threat to terminate DACA by the current administration, I fulfilled all the pre-med requirements, and I was blessed to get accepted into the University of Utah School of Medicine. I had accomplished something I once thought impossible.
At first, I noticed that my classmates appeared to come from an entirely different background than mine. Being one of the three fully Hispanic students of my class made me question whether I was supposed to be in the same space. Most of my classmates had come from upperclass backgrounds, many of them with mothers, fathers, or both who were physicians. Neither was my case. Just as I was getting over my insecurities, one night destroyed all the confidence I had struggled to build.
After an exhausting day of learning, I stopped at a gas station around 11 p.m. After filling up my tank, I got on the phone with my now-wife and drove off. A couple of seconds later, I saw police lights flashing behind me. I told my now-wife I was getting pulled over and that I would call her back because I did not want her to be worried. I quickly did a mental rundown of anything that would have given them a reason to pull me over. A younger white police officer stood outside my car door, informed me that my headlights were off and asked for my license and registration. I complied. While the officer reviewed my documents, I decided to get some studying done with a phone application that requires me to tap on the screen. When the officer returned, I noticed it was not the same one that had pulled me over. He must have seen my confused look because he started with: “Yeah, I know I am not the same officer that pulled you over.”
“Yeah, I’m confused. What’s going on?” I replied.
“I’m going to need you to step out of the car.”
“Is everything okay?” I asked, feeling my fight or flight response kicking in.
“My partner noticed that you were busy with your hands while he was checking your information. It looked suspicious, so he called me over. I am a K-9 unit narcotics officer and we will check you and your truck for drugs. Do you have any drugs you want to tell me about before we start?”
I was shocked. I did not know what I had done to seem suspicious enough to have an additional K-9 unit over. Maybe I had fidgeted too much with my phone as I was studying? Perhaps the police officer had assumed I did drugs because I was wearing a Mexican Baja jacket. I could blame cultural appropriation for looking “suspicious,” because these jackets are associated with potheads. All I knew was that I had to comply, so I got out of the car. The police officer commanded me to walk toward his vehicle and stand in front of it, facing the windshield. He had me spread my legs and put my hands behind my back. He then proceeded to search me for drugs.
As he was patting me down, he came across my fanny pack. He was having a hard time taking it off with one hand as he held me with his other hand. I attempted to help him, but he forcibly restrained my hands and reminded me not to make any sudden movements. I was instantly reminded of the reality that the situation could quickly escalate if I made any sudden movements that they could perceive as “threatening.” After frisking me, his partner went to get the dog and had it sniff around my truck a couple of times. I was confused, frustrated, and above all, terrified of what the dog’s powerful sense of smell could detect, and I thought that maybe some of the formaldehyde used to preserve the organs from earlier that day could have impregnated my car seat. After they finished, the K-9 unit officer said that the dog had indicated that there may be drugs in the car and that he was going to do a hands-on check. As the officer searched through my stuff, the officer guarding me began questioning me: “So, where are you going?”
“Home,” I said, “I was in school the whole day, and I am tired, so that’s most likely why I forgot to turn my headlights back on.”
“Where do you go to school?” he asked.
“The U,” I replied.
“So, what’s your major?”
“I am in medical school,” I said, hoping that it would positively influence the officer’s judgment of my character.
“Really?” he asked with a raised eyebrow. He must have thought it was a lie because he continued to interrogate me.
“I’m in my first year.”
Still dubious, he asked: “So, how did you get into medical school?”
I could not believe the police officer still doubted me despite the medical student badge I had previously shown him and my water bottle with the School of Medicine’s logo. I felt that I did not need to prove myself worthy of medical school to this police officer. I had already done that to the people who mattered. He must have had his personal biases of why he thought there was no way that someone who looked like me could be in medical school. Reluctantly, I briefed him on the many community service hours, patient exposure, research, clinical employment, leadership roles, and competitive GPA and MCAT score. We were then interrupted by his partner finding my yerba mate. The officer raised it and asked: “What is this?”
“It is a South American herbal tea,” I replied.
“It doesn’t smell like marijuana,” he said sarcastically.
The blatant mistrust in his words heightened my fear. Their determination to view me as a criminal made me afraid that they would find any reason to arrest me. If I got arrested, I would not qualify for DACA anymore, which would make me ineligible for medical school, not to mention being deported. With a prayer in my heart, I mentally went over anything that could potentially give them any reasons for an arrest. Nothing came to mind. Why then, were they treating me as if I was a criminal?
After the search ended and the conversation about what I did in medical school concluded, the officer that was with me said: “The dog sometimes detects lingering smells. If you or someone else smoked some days ago, the dog would still detect it.”
We had just had a conversation about how I was in medical school and I could not do drugs, or I would get kicked out. It still did not matter to them.
“I can’t do drugs. I am in medical school,” I reaffirmed.
As I was walking back to my car, the cop next to me said with a smile: “Well, at least you now have a story to tell.”
I sure did. The police officers thanked me for understanding the “protocol,” and had me wait in my truck. I hoped that I would not get a ticket for having my headlights off on top of everything that they had put me through. I was only given a warning ticket. I drove home feeling humiliated and questioning whether this would be an ongoing part of my life despite any accomplishments I achieve.
The next day, I could not focus on anything. I kept ruminating over the events of the previous night. I was already suffering from “impostor syndrome” from being the only DACA medical student at the University of Utah, so it was not the first time that I had experienced discrimination or racial profiling. However, it was my first time experiencing it as a medical student, and that took me by surprise because I thought I had gotten to a point where people would not question whether I was a productive member of my community. I was wrong.
So, how does one move past such an experience? The police officer was right when he said I had a story to tell. I will tell my story for those who have been racially profiled and lost their lives at the police’s hands. I will tell my story for those who wonder whether they can accomplish their goals and dreams amidst the current political environment. I will tell my story to verify a phrase that a good friend and mentor once said to me: “There are people who are bothered by your mere existence.” We do not have to prove ourselves to anybody but ourselves. We must get to know who we are and what we can accomplish despite society’s biases, prejudices and racist ideologies. These experiences will shape us to be more empathetic servants to those we will serve as professionals.
Despite the traumatic nature of my experience, it helped me realize that I thought of myself the same way those police officers thought of me. I had been feeling out of place just as they felt I was out of place. I did not realize my own headlights had been off during this journey. I have come to terms with the fact that I cannot change people’s minds about what they think of me, but I can change my attitude. I am Mexican, a DACA recipient and a medical student whom God has blessed to be where I am by empowering me to overcome numerous obstacles that have made me a more resilient individual. As other people’s stories are brought to light through social media or articles, this experience has forced me to reflect on my self-perception. My headlights are now on.