Julio Mendoza

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Chronic pain and hospitalizations exposed Julio to medicine at a young age, now he wants to use his experiences to help others.

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Undergraduate: Amherst College, 2011
Major: Neuroscience
Medical school: Howard University College of Medicine, 2017


As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a train conductor because I rode two trains and a bus to get to elementary school.

What led to your interest in medicine?

I grew up with an unusual venous malformation (widened, abnormally shaped veins that can enlarge as a child grows) on my right leg that required frequent visits to the doctor. It started off as a seemingly harmless bruise when I was 4 years old, but when it began to grow and became increasingly painful, my mother took me to the doctor.

Through the next eight years I visited many hospitals in Los Angeles County in search of a diagnosis and treatment plan. In the process, I talked to many doctors and developed an interest in medicine.

Who or what inspired you?

My mother is my source of strength and determination. She immigrated to the states from El Salvador to escape a civil war. She started cleaning houses for a living and has been doing so ever since. When I was in elementary school, my mom would wake me up at 4:30 a.m. so that she could take me to school. I lived in South Los Angeles at the time, but went to school in downtown because I got jumped too many times by local gangs. To get me to elementary school, my mom commuted two trains and a bus to drop me off, followed by an additional three trains to get to work.

Despite the fact that my mom never finished middle school, she taught me the importance of education, even when I was failing classes. She fought through her own school anxieties in night citizenship classes and achieved U.S. citizenship in 2001. Even when she did fail she never gave up. At the age of 56, she learned to drive and failed the driving exam four times before passing. Today, she continues to challenge herself by taking English night classes, even though she’s struggled learning the language for over 10 years.

What made you decide to go to medical school?

Because of chronic pain and hospitalizations growing up, I received a lot of exposure to medicine at a young age. I liked asking questions during my hospital visits and enjoyed talking to doctors who were willing to teach me. When I got older, I discovered a passion for teaching that complimented my desire to interact with patients and help them through difficult times. I chose medical school because I believe I can use my own medical experiences to help others.

Did anyone encourage or discourage you from applying to medical school?

My biggest hurdle in applying to medical school was overcoming self-doubt. I felt very alone in my journey and found it difficult to talk to others about my struggles.

How did you prepare for the medical school application process?

I enrolled in a post-bacc program before applying to medical school because I knew my grades weren’t competitive. During that year, I prepared my application, worked hard in my classes, and studied for the MCAT. I even arranged mock interviews with my science advisor. That preparation year was immensely helpful.

Did you need financial aid to pay for medical school?

Yes, and I was fortunate enough to win a small scholarship from Howard University College of Medicine.

What was your first year of medical school like?

Probably my most important lesson this year was learning to adapt quickly. The courses are set up into units. One unit may entail three to six exams, and the whole year was about six units. The result is that once you think you’ve figured out a good study strategy, you have to change it to accommodate the new unit’s material. In fact, sometimes, I found myself switching up study strategies as often as in between exams. Toward the end I got better at it and it’s really helped a lot with managing stress. 

I also learned to have fun. I think my first couple of months I was obsessed with studying. I think it was good for me to do this at first, but what I learned much later is that it’s an unsustainable strategy. In fact, I paradoxically did better on some exams where I felt that I studied less (and was much better rested).

That said, everyone is different, and it’s really interesting to meet so many people with wildly different study strategies. And I think that’s what first year is all about, figuring that out, what works best for you. I spoke with a lot of 4th years that have matched in residency programs and they’ve all reflected that thought—your first year, focus on figuring out a system that works for you and be ready to change it. It sound like second year is all about preparing for the Step 1 exam. It’s like another MCAT (ha ha, some things never change). 

Do you have additional information or thoughts to share that would be helpful to prospective students?

I think it’s very important to have a mentor early on in college. It doesn’t have to be someone in the medical community, but someone you feel comfortable with and can share your struggles and successes on your path to medical school.

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