Coming Home to Columbia P&S

Two first-year med students put a local spin on studying at Columbia

March 14, 2016

For two of this year’s first-year P&S students, who are also Washington Heights natives, Columbia feels like home. Naralys Batista and Tina Roa say they have been supported and inspired by family, the neighborhood community, and faculty since starting their medical studies in August.

Why did you decide to go to medical school?

Naralys Batista (NB): I studied computer science in college, but I didn’t want to be alone with computers all day. During a trip to visit family in the Dominican Republic, my uncle, who was in his residency at a medical school there, took me to a rural clinic. The kids were so funny, even though they were sick. That planted a seed in my mind.

When I returned to college, I switched to chemistry. But lab research lacked the kind of vibe you get from being around people. So I began a program at SUNY Downstate that allowed students to shadow doctors. Watching one doctor, an ophthalmologist from the Bronx, relating to his patients in such a human way gave me that feeling I was looking for. That’s when I started to think about med school.

Tina Roa (TR): I graduated from college with a degree in psychology. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I applied for a teaching fellowship. I taught science to bilingual seventh graders in the South Bronx, mostly immigrants from the Dominican Republic. I was passionate about teaching, but many of these students missed school because of asthma, which is a big problem in the Bronx. And because I speak Spanish and understand science, parents often asked for medical advice. I realized I could help my community more if I pursued medicine.

I volunteered for Einstein Community Health Outreach, a student-run free clinic in the Bronx. I loved it. That’s when I decided to do a postbac program before applying to medical school.

Why did you choose Columbia?

NB: At first, I was intimidated by Columbia. I didn’t interact with the campus at all when I was growing up. But then I began thinking about the fact that studying here would give me the chance to treat people in Washington Heights, which was really important to me.

The Black and Latino Students Organization (BALSO) community here is so strong. That was a big reason I ultimately chose Columbia. Seeing so many students who looked like me here also made me comfortable.

TR: I also viewed Columbia as this ivory tower, not a place where people like me work. But I wanted to stay in New York, and my dad was very encouraging. Dr. Hutcherson interviewed me. That was such a game-changer. Here was someone who looks like she could be my family member, and she’s a woman. She was the warmest interviewer I had. She really wanted to hear my story and made me feel so good about Columbia. When I got the phone call from her saying I was accepted, I couldn’t believe it. I started crying, plus I had a cold so I sounded awful. She was so nice about it.

NB: When I got the phone call, the woman talked to me for 10 minutes before she told me I had been accepted. I thought she was just calling to check in.

The process sounds so personal.

NB: It is. I don’t think most schools do that.

TR: Even the acceptance letter was personalized. Dean Nicholas crossed out my last name and wrote in my first name. I knew this is where I needed to be.

Aside from BALSO and Dr. Hutcherson, what other ways is the Latino community supported at Columbia?

TR: I’m the co-director of Dígame Más, an interprofessional student group that aims to bridge the divide between CUMC and Washington Heights. We’re trying to help our fellow students learn about the language, history, and culture of this neighborhood by organizing lectures, Spanish classes, and walking tours.

Did your families influence your decision to study medicine, and did they have anything to do with your decision to study at Columbia?

TR: Both of my parents went to medical school in the Dominican Republic. They gave up their careers in medicine so that my sisters and I could have a better life here. My dad encouraged me to apply to Columbia, and I wanted to maximize my chances of staying in New York. If it weren’t for my family, I wouldn’t be sitting here now.

NB: I’ve always felt lucky to have the family that I have. My parents never pressured me about what career I should have; their only concern was that I go to school. Plus, they live nearby in the Bronx and bring me dinner all the time.

TR: If it makes you feel better, I’m 28 and my mom still brings me dinner…