Luis E. Seija
Medical school: Texas A&M College of Medicine, 2019
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Everything; from astronaut to zookeeper, nothing was off-limits. It drove my mother crazy. In high school, my creative outlet, music, became my identity. I further developed this passion, which resulted in my acceptance to the Butler School of Music at UT-Austin.
What led to your interest in medicine?
Majoring in music was a non-decision. It was automatic. Then, for no discernable reason, my academic focus shifted. I realized I was getting more satisfaction solving calculus problems than perfecting a section of an etude. In the internal struggle that followed, I realized that my devotion to music was not in question, but rather there was a stronger force at play. The following semester I enrolled in the College of Natural Sciences hoping to follow that force. I was captivated by the scope of available prospects offered by the sciences including research, business, teaching, and professional opportunities. I did not initially set out to choose medicine.
What experiences did you have that confirmed medicine was the right career for you?
I spent my first spring break as an undergraduate in the Dominican Republic helping to provide medical care as a member of Global Medical Training. . For the first time in my life, I was face to face with actual poverty. No longer were the abstract consequences of health inequalities limited to a 30 second TV commercial. They were standing right in front of me in the form of living, breathing people. My patients, though very ill, exuded hope. The stories they shared struck a chord. I wanted to be that person who prevented or cured their ailments. Returning to campus, I knew becoming a medical professional was where I could use my strengths in math and science and affect positive change in people’s lives.
Who or what inspired you?
Upper and lower respiratory ailments plagued me throughout my childhood. Every week, I was in and out of my pediatrician's office with strep throat, sinus infections, bronchitis or pneumonia. As I grew older, I came to admire and respect my doctor for the patience, kindness, consideration, and thorough nature of her practice. I benefitted from our interactions and through observation of her with other children of different ages, I became partial to her role in medicine as a pediatrician. That, coupled with my mother’s volunteerism attitude, have set me on a path to help those unable to help themselves. Throughout my undergraduate career and first year of medical school, I have been fortunate enough to participate in programs that have expanded my perspective and reinforced my commitment to service through medicine, both locally and globally.
Did anyone encourage or discourage you from applying to medical school?
As a re-applicant, encouragement and discouragement often came as a packaged deal, “hope for the best, but expect the worse” or “this looks great, but let’s talk plan b.” There was always a sense of apprehension among advisors and mentors, and rightfully so. My sophomore year, I was accepted into the Joint Admission Medical Program (JAMP). JAMP is a statewide program that aims to help economically disadvantaged students achieve a medical education via financial support, academic assistance and guaranteed admission into a Texas medical school, granted they meet certain requirements. My senior year, I was dismissed from JAMP after 3 unsuccessful attempts to meet their MCAT requirement. Combined with a less than inspiring GPA, my first application cycle was a bust. I was devastated. Disappointment overwhelmed me, however, these circumstances prompted some serious self-reflection and identification of weaknesses. I made a new plan. I enrolled in a MCAT course, excelled in my remaining course work, and prepared for the next cycle by consulting multiple admissions officials for constructive feedback on my previous application.
Was there one person who stands above the others as your inspiration to go to medical school?
Growing up, my mother instilled in my sister and me an appreciation for education and its value. For us, it was never a matter whether we were going to college, but rather which college we would attend, even if circumstances were working against us. As a librarian, she believed the success of a story did not necessarily rely on word choice, but rather how the story made you feel. My mother placed a bookmark in her story so my sister and I could start writing our own. For every noun and verb used, she was the supporting adjective and adverb throughout every chapter. The way I make people feel is a direct reflection of her love and guidance.
How did you prepare for the medical school application process?
Navigating the application process was frequently difficult and frustrating, and it wasn’t any easier the second time around. My school helped to an extent by providing mock interviews, timelines and general pointers, but nothing can prepare an applicant for this ultimate waiting game. Your patience will be tested as you wait for your interview invitations and then for notification of admittance or denial. I learned the hard way that obsessively refreshingly email or checking the latest web forum update cannot and will not have an impact on the status of your application.
Did you have any concerns about taking the MCAT exam?
As someone who has taken the MCAT five times, concerns were abundant and precipitated with each attempt. Testing center staff also expressed concerns because I became a “regular”. The test made feel me stupid. The test made me question my intelligence. The test tried my motivation. The test almost broke me. If you’ve ever shared these sentiments, reach out to your support system. Get in contact with your health professions office. Have a real talk with yourself: is it what I’m studying? How I’m studying? Is it a test taking issue? Address your concerns head on and be honest with yourself.
What is your top MCAT tip for applicants preparing to take the exam?
Once you submit your exam, you can’t control the outcome, but you can control your attitude. If you’re happy with your first score, awesome. If not, it’s okay. If this is something you want, you’ll make it happen.
Did you have any fears going into medical school?
Absolutely. Most of my fears stemmed from feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy, especially from an academic standpoint. I recognized when I needed help and became aware of my limitations, which have allowed me to be academically successful. When I realized that everyone involved (faculty, staff, upperclassmen) had my best interest at heart, it became easier to swallow my pride and reach out to the appropriate person for whatever question I had. Getting into medical school is hard and an achievement in itself. The school wants you to be there. They are going to put all their time, resources and efforts to ensure the academic and personal success of their students.
How did you prepare for medical school before your first day?
Texas A&M offered a 3.5-week pre-matriculation program called MedCamp, which provided a head start on medical school by offering early access to the classroom, clinical experiences, simulations as well as mentorship from faculty, staff and students. As someone who was out of school for over a year, participating in the program equipped me with tools, strategies and preparation for what medical school was going to be like. It was a huge help and something I highly recommend for both traditional and non-traditional students.
What made your medical school the right fit for you?
Like most people, I am a product of my environment. As a native Austinite, I have eaten too many breakfast tacos, attended my fair share of music festivals and bleed burnt orange. If you had told me I would ever be an Aggie, I wouldn’t believe it. But here I am, one of the loudest and proudest members of the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Class of 2019 and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The admissions process is more than just a single-sided decision. Applicants invest in the schools they think fit their values and schools look for applicants that can be molded into exemplary physicians to represent their institution. Texas A&M chose me. They saw an applicant who represented their idea of what an Aggie Doc should and could be.
What kind of financial aid did you need to pay for medical school?
Texas A&M has been cited as the most affordable medical school in the nation for in-state tuition. That being said, I am able to attend medical school through a mix of loans and grants. Knowing that I will not be graduating with debilitating student debt allows me to make career choices based off preference, not financial obligation.
What memory stands out the most from your first day of medical school?
The mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell.
What was your first year of medical school like?
A vague time warp of sorts. I honestly did not think it was possible to explore, learn or do as much as we did in a year. However, I’ve been told the best years have yet to come!
Please describe your participation in extra-curricular activities, volunteer work, research, or study-abroad opportunities during medical school.
I currently Chair the Minority Issues Committee (MIC) for the American Medical Association – Medical Student Section (MSS). MIC is one of the most important committees in making sure the MSS represents all those who make up our medical community and patient populations, which is accomplished through policy development, health education and service. I also serve on my school’s admissions committee, screening and interviewing the aspiring physicians of tomorrow. Both have given me a platform to advocate for individuals and populations that are underrepresented and underserved that deserve as much, if not more, consideration than others.
What obstacles did you overcome in your medical school journey?
Despite holding down two jobs, shopping with frugality and coupons, my mother struggled to make ends meet every month. It was a financial balancing act to make sure that nothing went unpaid, and there was seldom very much left over in the budget. My sister and I grew up thinking our household was normal. Surely, everyone ate rice and beans every day of the week and wore clothes purchased from the sales racks. My mother seldom bought or did things for herself. Instead, she made certain that we had the essentials and then creatively filled in the remainder. Unfortunately, during my senior in high school, my mother filed for bankruptcy. My sister and I took it in stride and as a motivation to give back to our mother. My financial need was recognized for school and I was the recipient of the Terry Foundation Scholarship, which paid for my undergraduate expenses including tuition, housing and textbooks. Money continues to be an obstacle in medical school, but has become more manageable.
What makes your story unique?
My former zip code suggests I would have led a life of low-paying jobs and poverty. The combination of a being raised in a single parent home and being Hispanic/Latino indicates my educational level would not surpass high school. I have applied twice to medical school and taken the MCAT five times, prompting recommendations to start pursuing other careers. My history does not reflect where I’m at today. Numbers inform, but do not define us. It is a culmination of our experiences we project that allow us to navigate, connect and determine outcomes. Through my experiences, I have proven to myself that I will fight alongside my patients through their ups and downs because I have overcome my own.
What did you enjoy most about medical school?
As I reflect on this past year, I have come to notice a recurring theme time and time again: the school provides the quality of the education, but your peers provide the quality of the experience. I can say, without a doubt, my personal and academic success is a direct result of the individuals I surround myself with – the Class of 2019.
What surprised you the most about medical school?
As an outsider looking in, the idea of medical school was always an enigma to me. It was this black vortex that you enter and some how magically find your way out of four years later. Progressing through blocks and exams, you come to understand that there is more to school than studying. You will have time to enjoy the things you thought you wouldn’t be able to, maybe even pick up a new hobby. It’s okay to not be continuously studying. Your sanity depends on it.
Are you a member of a unique demographic? If so, please describe how that shaped your medical school experience.
As an employee for the school district, my mother was in a position where she had say in which schools my sister and I attended. In lieu of local neighborhood schools, we were enrolled in high performing, predominantly white schools. I was often the stand alone minority in AP/IB courses. Because of this, I was acutely aware of how I was perceived and labeled. In the sciences, I felt like I was babied and talked down to more so than my peers. This factored into my decision to not register for any science classes my senior year and shift my academic focus to music. In undergrad, minority representation within the sciences was even scarcer, especially as one progressed through upper division course work. As in high school, many times I found myself to be the only minority in labs and classes. That’s when I started to realize the significance of my presence and my identity as a minority in the sciences and as a future medical professional. I used to put pressure on myself to do well in school because I was competitive. Now, my determination derives from a sense of obligation and responsibility to do well on behalf of the Hispanic/Latino population and community. Representation matters.
What advice do you have for applicants considering a career in medicine?
There is no recipe for a perfect applicant. Don’t do something for the sake of checking off a box on an application. Be sincere and well intentioned in everything that you do. Invest your time in activities that will challenge and question your own biases, stereotypes, preconceptions and assumptions of what you know to be truth; develop new modes of thinking as a result. In an effort to achieve that 4.0 or ideal MCAT score, we lose sight of our original humanistic and altruistic motivations that gravitated us toward this profession in the first place.
If you had the opportunity to talk to a potential medical student, what would you tell him/her, off the top of your head?
There is no point in comparing yourself to your peers, whether that be academically or otherwise. Success is attaining the goals you have set for yourself in life, or in this case, school. There is a lot of initial pressure to do well, but if you specify realistic expectations, you can always succeed.