Student overcomes doubts, challenges to pursue career in medicine
Without missing a beat, rising senior José Lizarraga Mazaba transitioned from the challenges of spring online classes to full-time summer study sessions preparing for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). He went directly from genomics annotations and ethics readings for his Stritch classes right into hours of self-directed studies, practice tests and meetings with a mentor in preparation for the test that will determine the next step in his unlikely journey to becoming a doctor.
“Now that I’m 21, I look back at myself in high school,” said Lizarraga Mazaba, who graduated from Ronald Reagan High School in Milwaukee Public Schools and is majoring in biology with chemistry and art minors at Stritch. “When I was a sophomore or junior, I didn’t see myself going to college. Growing up, I had no one who looked like me that I could look up to who went to college. At that time, I never saw myself in the process of applying to medical school someday. Now I’m sitting here – I don’t know if it’s by chance or by luck – and I see myself and my future differently.”
Lizarraga Mazaba and his parents arrived in Milwaukee when he was five years old, leaving behind a dangerous situation in Tijuana, Mexico, to seek a new life for their growing family in the U.S. Lizarraga Mazaba vividly recalls details of his childhood and the difficulties he experienced acclimating to his new home and school in a language that did not come naturally to him. Translating medical conversations, pharmacy instructions and laboratory test results for his family gave young Lizarraga Mazaba an early awareness of health disparities and challenges faced by immigrant, minority and impoverished families. This gradual and intimate awareness of these needs in his community helped form his early ambitions toward a career in medicine.
“Even when a translator was available, I could sense a disconnect between the physician and my parents as it’s not ideal to communicate through a third party who is not personally invested in the outcomes of the conversations,” Lizarraga Mazaba said. “Growing up, I saw very few physicians who looked like me and currently still see very few. I think the disconnect between certain communities such as the Latino and African-American communities is real and is the root of health disparities all over the U.S., specifically in Milwaukee.”
A high school science teacher saw potential in Lizarraga Mazaba even before he saw it in himself and persistently encouraged him to apply to a summer program for high school minority students at the Medical College of Wisconsin. Lizarraga Mazaba resisted the idea of applying at first, lacking confidence that he would be able to overcome the odds stacked against him as a Dreamer. But his teacher’s conviction finally convinced him to submit his application at the last minute, even though he felt little hope he would be accepted.
“My mindset shifted,” Lizarraga Mazaba said. “Once accepted, I made what I could of the opportunity at the summer academy. The classes were taught by medical students. I formed a good relationship with the program manager and she told me that she wanted to see an application from me the following summer to do research there.”
And that set in motion a series of events, involvements and opportunities that would shape the vision Lizarraga Mazaba had for his future. The following summer after graduating from high school and preparing for his freshman year at Stritch, Lizarraga Mazaba continued his connection with the Medical College of Wisconsin, working on community-based clinical research with a mentor who would open doors for him to learn and grow. While intimidated by the magnitude of the experience and expectations at first, Lizarraga Mazaba saw that summer as a time to prove his determination, choosing to work long hours, fulfilling every task given to him and exceeding expectations when possible.
“That’s the point I started to believe in myself and to see that I was there for a reason, despite of my upbringing,” Lizarraga Mazaba said.
That professional relationship with his mentor continues to this day, with Lizarraga Mazaba persistently keeping in contact with him to press him for more opportunities in the field. If emails aren’t answered, Lizarraga Mazaba admits he will show up unexpectedly at the mentor’s office door to check in and make himself available. As a result, Lizarraga Mazaba was invited to present a poster at a conference, publish research findings in two professional publications, and work on a mobile app that focuses on crisis intervention for veterans. He said the mentor credited his contributions on the app project with improving their development timeline by as much as a year or two.
His varied research and clinical opportunities in addition to the valuable relationships he has formed with experts in the field position him well as he fills out his medical school applications. In addition to his work with combat veterans at the Clement J. Zablocki Veteran Affairs Medical Center in Milwaukee, Lizarraga Mazaba also served as a student intern for the All of Us research program and as part of various teams doing research at both the Medical College and the VA. Add that to endless hours spent in Stritch science classes and labs, and his resume is impressive.
“The science department at Stritch is one of the strongest ones at the University,” Lizarraga Mazaba said. “The instructors are top notch and have prepared me very well for my future.”
Outside the classroom, Lizarraga Mazaba’s experience at Stritch included involvement in the LDRS Initiative (Leadership Development, Reflection and Service) for first-generation and minority students, the Franciscan Servant Scholars discernment and service program, the Pre-Professional Club and peer tutoring. These learning communities and opportunities helped further shape Lizarraga Mazaba and validate his career and life choices.
“As an undergraduate, I have had several volunteering experiences, including at a soup kitchen (St. Ben’s Community Meal) which is in a community close to my childhood home,” he said. “These experiences allowed me to go back and see that although some progress has been made it is not nearly enough. Providing service to my community gave me the insight and confidence to pursue a career in medicine as I was able to envision myself addressing these injustices.”
Lizarraga Mazaba is awaiting his MCAT results, which will lead to critical invitations for interviews with medical schools around the country. His educational path, once so seemingly limited, is widening once again.
As he forges ahead, Lizarraga Mazaba is all too aware of the daunting expenses involved with medical school tests, applications and related travel. After being furloughed from his job at the VA and unable to apply for other jobs due to the limitations related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Lizarraga Mazaba is feeling the pinch of his finances. As a first generation student and Dreamer who does not qualify for federal financial aid extended to U.S. citizens, Lizarraga Mazaba felt fortunate when he received emergency funds from the Cardinal Stritch University Pay It Forward Fund, a resource for students needing extra assistance.
For students with big goals and a promising future like Lizarraga Mazaba, a fund that helps them meet personal expenses can make the difference between continuing their education or having to take a break from their studies and career preparation.
“The help from the fund came at a good time,” Lizarraga Mazaba said. “I was off work for a couple of months. If I had a full-time job, I would not be able to study for my admissions exam. The donation was much appreciated and I’m thankful for the people who contributed to the fund.”
As he persists in his studies and in his pursuit of a medical career, Lizarraga Mazaba will soon be in a position to influence and support others and his community in the same way teachers, supervisors and so many others have guided his unlikely journey. Looking ahead to his future, he is determined not only to reach his professional goals, but even more to serve his community and to mentor, encourage and empower other minority students to follow their dreams despite odds and other circumstances stacked against them.