Lenny Mayorga was the first one in her family to set foot on a college campus. Starting her freshman year at California State University, Northridge in 2010, she had one goal in mind: “I want to be a dentist.”
Five years later, she came back to her alma mater to explain how she made her goal a reality by being accepted to the University of Southern California’s Ostrow School of Dentistry.
“Both my parents have high school educations,” Mayorga said. “My mom owns a day care, and my dad is a tailor. I have no background with anyone who pushed me toward health care.”
But at CSUN, Mayorga encountered a life-changing group of mentors that would guide her toward her dream.
The Student Health Professionals Pre-Entry Program (SHP-PEP), run by a group of dedicated advisers, has provided a support system for Mayorga and hundreds of other CSUN students on their way to the medical field.
Experiences as a first-generation college student with immigrant parents inspired SHP-PEP founder Frankline Augustin ’06 (Biology) to forge a pathway for students in similar situations, she said. Augustin helped launch the initiative as a pilot program in the College of Science and Mathematics in 2005.
“I noticed that many of our students had this passion to be doctors and dentists,” Augustin said. “The desire and the determination was there, but the grades weren’t. And it didn’t seem fair to me, because I knew that for me, I had to work. I was working two jobs, wanting to be a medical doctor, but I didn’t have the time to focus. It wasn’t because I was dumb. I just didn’t have the time. It wasn’t like I could afford tutors. The resources weren’t there.”
Approximately 30 percent of CSUN scholars are first-generation college students according to college statistics, so the program aims at those who need the guidance to navigate pre-health degrees, Augustin said.
“I taught at USC. The students there know where they’re going,” she said. “The self-esteem was there. They had access. They knew how to navigate. They had no fear about where they were going. They knew they had the help to get there.
“Here? I’m sure there are people who have contacts, but the majority of them come from depressed environments. The fact that they have the desire to be a doctor in spite of what’s around them, that’s what makes our students so special.”
SHP-PEP coordinator Amina Gonzalez ’08 (Psychology) couldn’t agree more. Also a first-generation student, she explained that her shared past with the students drives her to offer top-notch support.
“During my academic journey, I felt that I didn’t have the support I wished I would have had as a first-generation student,” she said. “Not only the support, but also the guidance that’s needed to pursue higher education, coming from a background such as mine. I wanted to provide that guidance and support to the students here.”
With students who are taking strenuous loads of science and mathematics courses, Gonzalez said the program’s ability to provide one-on-one tutoring sessions, monthly meetings with their assigned entry cohorts and grade checks with their professors is just a part of what the program does for its students.
“The curriculum is very rigorous,” Gonzalez said. “They are trying to juggle that with the part-time job they have and the personal relationships, the family matters and the emotional struggles. It is unbelievable what students go through already. We make accommodations for them. The program is tailored for their needs, and we ask them to come to us as well.
“What is it that you need? How do you feel about your first semester? What is it that scares you about college? Do you feel alone? We ask those questions. Meeting with them is really beneficial. Students don’t trust you right off the bat. They have to get to know you, and they have to see that you truly care for them.”
One such student who faced major trials is Azadouhi Rptchin.
“I would be lost academically without SHP-PEP,” she said. “Just knowing which classes to take, as well as the right classes to take together. Amina [Gonzalez] has also helped me out personally, which is huge.”
Rptchin struggled through anxiety and the death of her father last year, but she credited SHP-PEP and Gonzalez for helping her through that trying time.
“Amina walked me to the counseling center,” she said. “Having a support system here is amazing. I always fall back on SHP-PEP.”
This unique support system also benefits the health care system, Augustin said.
“Increasing the diversity of our workforce helps to increase patient outcomes,” she said. “It also helps educate people who didn’t grow up in certain cultures. That’s another purpose of SHP-PEP, to diversify the workforce for the better. To do that, you have to create a pipeline and encourage students to do well in their classes — start instilling in them that they can be doctors, they can do this.”
According to 2007 data from the Association of American Medical Colleges, 60 percent of medical school students are Caucasian, while less than 14 percent are African-American or Latino combined.
One-eighth of the U.S. population is African-American, but only one in 20 become doctors or dentists, according to the U.S. Department of Health. Even more dramatic, 12 percent of the U.S. population is Latino, but only 2 percent enter the medical field.
For Mayorga, reaching USC’s Ostrow School of Dentistry was no easy task. At one point during her time at CSUN, she nearly failed her classes and had to go on medical leave.
“I left for a semester because I got sick,” Mayorga said. “I was overwhelmed, burnt out. Amina said, ‘It’s not looking good. Your grades are barely pulling Cs. What are dental school admissions panels going to think?’”
The stress from school became too much, and her grade point average was barely a 2.0. Two weeks before finals began in 2012, Gonzalez was able to get Mayorga’s medical leave accepted by the university. Upon her return the following semester, Mayorga’s GPA skyrocketed to a 3.5.
Gonzalez said she is proud of Mayorga’s success, especially after the struggle she went through to keep her grades up. “Medical leave was the best option for her, and she came back on fire!” Gonzalez said.
“I don’t know where I would be without [SHP-PEP],” Mayorga said. “I would always come to Amina or Dr. Augustin feeling like I couldn’t do this. But I would leave feeling like this was possible. I can do this!”
Augustin said she’s found true inspiration in the success of students such as Mayorga and Rptchin.
“I never imagined the program would be what it is today,” Augustin said. “It really does touch my heart. It gives me a lot of hope. SHP-PEP’s changed me! It has inspired me to move forward. I see the dedication of these students, even with everything that they go through, that they can still move forward. When it gets hard for me, I have no excuse.”