Cristian Pena

VP&S Class of 2023: Cristian J. Pena

Cristian J. Peña grew up in Allen, Texas, and completed his undergraduate education in New York at Cornell University. He has played competitive baseball and football for most of his life and is an avid follower of the Texas Rangers and Dallas Cowboys. His path to medicine is closely entwined with his family’s cultural background and their experiences with the health care system. He explains in his own words:

Growing up in Texas

As a Mexican-American growing up in Texas, my culture helped define my identity. I remember dancing to Tejano music with my cousins on summer nights and the sore knuckles I got from kneading the masa for tamales on Christmas Eves. As I matured into an adult, I was able to better understand the role culture played to individual and collective identity for many other Americans.

Making medicine work for everyone

Through my education and experiences, I saw all too clearly the rift between Western medicine and those whose culture felt incompatible with the values of the institution. On numerous occasions, family members delayed health care due to cost and a pervasive distrust in an institution that didn’t speak their language and frowned upon their cultural remedies. I’ve recognized from experience the fragile relationship between science and culture and feel responsible as an educated person of color to mend and strengthen this divide. As I progress in my education, medicine may take on different personal meanings, but the essence of making the institution work for everyone will remain the same.

Choosing a career in medicine

After my freshman year of college, I attended a summer enrichment program for underrepresented students at the Yale School of Medicine. Through the program, I learned the intricacies of various essential biological pathways but also discovered the importance of intersectionality in health care. Understanding the interplay of race, gender, and socioeconomic status provided new insights for the practice of medicine. My experience at Yale enabled me to reappraise my family’s tenuous relationship with Western health care and cemented my desire to ultimately become a physician.

Formative experiences from Ithaca to Edinburgh

Two seemingly disparate experiences during college also helped to focus my interest in medicine. In my junior year, I went to Edinburgh, Scotland, for five months, where I was a legislative intern for the Scottish Parliament. I had the unique opportunity to view public health through the scope of Scotland’s National Health Service. It was energizing to work within a government that views health care as a human right, where the pervading political discourse never jeopardized the health of its citizens.

At Cornell, I was involved with the Men of Color Council for three years, serving as co-president for the entirety of my senior year. Our efforts culminated in acquiring corporate and university sponsorship to host an off-campus weekend retreat for underrepresented students. Due to our fundraising efforts, the conference was free for all attendees. Students in attendance received professional skills coaching from Cornell professors and administrators in addition to access to a network of diverse professionals willing to guide underrepresented students to postgraduate opportunities. This experience allowed me to work with a diverse team to identify and address a need within my community, something I hope to continue to do in medical school.

Why Columbia?

From the outset of the medical school admissions process, Columbia remained my top choice. In addition to its reputation for excellent clinical training and the myriad research opportunities available to medical students, Columbia promised an affordable education in a vibrant neighborhood of Manhattan.

During my interview, my faculty interviewer promptly made me feel comfortable. The interview proceeded more like a conversation as I felt my interviewer took a genuine interest in my life experiences.

My experiences during the interview day and second-look weekend only served to solidify my decision: The admissions team, faculty, and students made me feel like a great fit for the program.