Undocumented Grad Chases Medical Dreams

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Students pursuing medical degrees face long, tough roads. Making it through years of grueling study takes persistence and smarts. KQED’s Mina Kim tells the story of one recent UC grad who has made the grades, but faces being rejected by medical schools because he's undocumented.

MINA KIM, Reporter: New Latthi (who asked that we not use his full name) first started thinking seriously about pursuing medicine when he was a high school junior, and had to go with his mom to the doctor to translate for her. Latthi’s mother is Thai and speaks little English. The appointment was for a gynecological exam.
NEW LATTHI: It’s a small room where on just one side of the room, there’s a bed for the patient and then the OB/GYN was with her, and then there was a curtain in between us.
KIM: Latthi’s mother had been feeling pain in her lower abdomen. Through the curtain Latthi would translate commands from the doctor to his mom, and his mom’s answers back to the doctor. It was awkward. He couldn’t see them. He couldn’t translate the medical terms verbatim.
LATTHI: And I mean, to my mom, it’s I think a private matter for a lady, and so that part was kind of interesting for me to have to be in that role.
KIM: Latthi’s mom ended up needing a hysterectomy. For a problem that could have been prevented, Latthi says. The incident made Latthi wonder if he could someday be the doctor on the other side of the curtain.
LATTHI: Definitely, that was kind of the beginning.
KIM: Latthi put himself on a pre-med track, graduating with the second-highest marks in his Sacramento high school class. At UC Berkeley, he maintained a 3.7 GPA as a molecular and cell biology major. Then this past April, before his graduation from Cal, he was accepted to a sought-after summer internship at Cornell’s Weill Medical College. For many students, that's a step toward medical school acceptance. Latthi's dimples show as he remembers getting the letter.
LATTHI: I think I stared at it for a good couple of hours not opening it, it was really exciting, it was really exciting.
KIM: But then he read the fine print.
LATTHI: And unfortunately, they were asking for a lot more paperwork.
KIM: Like a social security number, and proof of permanent residency because the program includes a stipend.
LATTHI: So I kind of knew that okay, maybe I had to talk to them about my situation.
KIM: Latthi is in the US illegally. When he was nine years old his parents brought him and his two siblings here on a six-month visa, and never left. For advice on how to explain this to Cornell officials, Latthi turned to Kathy Gin at the nonprofit Educators for Fair Consideration. It gives students like him legal advice, scholarships and peer support. Gin says she's met only recently a handful of students like Latthi, determined to pursue medical school in spite of the cost and the rumors.
KATHY GIN: The rumor has been that undocumented students would not be accepted into medical schools because they don't think they'll be able to do residencies, and so medical schools don’t want to give away any spots to students that they don't think will be able to go through a whole program.
KIM: Lacking any guidelines for students like Latthi, Gin encouraged him to be honest. He was, and Cornell officials withdrew the offer. Latthi was crushed, but neither he nor Gin gave up. They called Jeff Hawkins, a Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur and inventor of the Palm Pilot, remember those? Hawkins is a major donor to Gin’s nonprofit and a Cornell alumnus.
JEFF HAWKINS: I basically wrote to the people who ran this program that New was getting in to and I copied some other people at the university including the president who I know, and said this is an important thing in our time to support undocumented students.
KIM: Hawkins says some people have criticized his philanthropy, saying it's unfair to struggling American students who are in the country legally. But to Hawkins, kids brought to the US illegally as minors have done nothing wrong.
HAWKINS: We don’t punish our children for the crimes of parents or relatives, it’s not something we do, but in some sense that’s what we’re doing right now. And regardless of how you feel about immigration, these kids are innocent. And I don’t think most people are aware that we’re taking this tens of thousands of kids who are really, really bright, have gotten into the best schools, and we’re putting them in sort of banishment and limbo. 
KIM: The federal DREAM Act would give some undocumented students who attend college or serve in the military a pathway to legal status. The act is mired in political conflict in Washington. As Latthi's Cal graduation approached, he began looking at his other options. Then two weeks before commencement, Cornell officials readmitted him to their summer program, without the stipend. For Latthi, word of his re-acceptance gave him a new sense of purpose.
LATTHI: It's not just about myself anymore, it's bigger than myself. If I go and I do well and they really see this is what is possible from an undocumented student, it could potentially open up a lot more doors for a lot of other students who right now are in the same boat as me.
KIM: On his graduation day, Latthi wasn't thinking about the obstacles that lay head. He had only two people on his mind: his mom, a kitchen cook at an East Bay Thai restaurant, and his dad, a waiter.
LATTHI: Every time I think of the sacrifices that they've made when they moved here, and they never complained and starting a new life here was so difficult.
KIM: Latthi leaves for New York June 16th. I’m Mina Kim, KQED News.
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