Among the nearly 200 medical and graduate students in Einstein’s Class of 2022, more than a dozen are the first in their families to graduate from college. Navigating the world of admission exams and essays was challenging enough. Then came the even steeper learning curve of how to prepare for and thrive in medical school.
“Words like grit and determination come to mind when talking about first-generation college students—there’s a lot of internal drive and motivation,” says Allison Ludwig, M.D., associate professor of medicine and associate dean for student affairs at Einstein and a hospitalist at Jacobi Medical Center. “I think there's a feeling of responsibility, of carrying this educational burden on their shoulders.”
At Einstein, first-generation college students make up between 3% and 14% of each of the four current classes.
“Graduating as an M.D. for a first-generation college graduate is the final overcoming of all challenges,” says Mimoza Meholli, M.D., assistant professor of medicine and assistant dean for student affairs at Einstein, and a hospitalist at Jacobi Medical Center. “Their success is their family’s success. It represents hope and inspiration, along with a better future.”
As they prepare to graduate later this month after years of hard work, five first-generation college students in Einstein’s Class of 2022 share the stories of their journey to commencement:
Janette Conde, Emergency Medicine
The first to attend college in an extended family of more than 50 people, Janette Conde served as the translator for her Colombian immigrant parents during their visits “to the few doctors who would see them,” starting when she was still in grade school. Prescriptions were often filled at underground pharmacies that sold antibiotics and medications near or past their expiration date, but were a common lifeline to those without medical coverage.
“That was the norm but it shouldn’t be, right?” she asks. “Seeing that, growing up, I thought: I don’t want that, we deserve better.” The 28-year-old settled on her medical education career path early. She left her South American immigrant community in Miami with ambitions to “make it in New York,” starting on the campus of Cornell University.
“It was quite an adjustment to navigate these spaces where I was the one person who looked like me, a Latina, and who spoke like me,” she says. In a study group where everyone shared their parents’ occupations, Ms. Conde heard a litany of white-collar jobs: engineer, lawyer, doctor, professor. She felt no shame when she told them that her mother was a daycare teacher and her father was a clerk. But she sensed shock among her peers and then an awkward, condescending tone when some told her they “respected” her more because of her upbringing. Others felt they could connect with her by mentioning they had taken a Spanish class or had a Latina nanny.
Ms. Conde took a few years off after graduating to study for the MCAT and work as a scribe in a pediatric emergency room and a cardiology office, both at Baptist Hospital in Miami. When it came time to apply to medical school, one of the cardiologists, Curtis Hamburg, M.D. ‘78, told her about Einstein. She was attracted to the school’s mission of serving large immigrant populations and addressing health inequities. While at Einstein, she served as co-president of the Latino Medical Student Association and volunteered at the ECHO clinic, Einstein’s student-coordinated free clinic, where she reprised her role as an interpreter for patients—“this time by choice,” she says.
Ms. Conde matched to an emergency medicine residency at Los Angeles County + University of Southern California Medical Center. “I like that you’re the first person to see someone with symptoms—the scientific mystery-solving aspect of diagnosis and treatment,” she says. “But the bigger aspect is that it’s the only specialty where you’re legally bound to see a patient who comes in, regardless of race, gender, religion, or insurance status. I also want to have my community and my patients see themselves reflected in me. And be the doctor that I wish my parents had.”
Richard Piszczatowski, Physician Scientist
While studying forensic science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, Richard Piszczatowski discovered he would need a medical degree to become a medical examiner. He was already conducting bone marrow research in a college lab and decided to volunteer at a local hospital. That’s when he knew he’d prefer combining research and patient care as a physician-scientist.
“I fell in love interacting with patients, starting conversations with people undergoing various cancer treatments,” Mr. Piszczatowski says. A few months into his senior year, his mother’s leukemia diagnosis sparked a greater interest in medicine. But applying to medical school proved to be daunting.
“Lots of first-generation college students are in the same boat: Our parents often don’t understand the medical field and what it takes to pursue a medical degree, but they still do their absolute best to support us,” says Mr. Piszczatowski, whose parents had emigrated from Poland to New Jersey. “Plus, finding the money, applying to numerous schools, and traveling for interviews is tough.”
His college didn’t have an official pre-med program, so Mr. Piszczatowski co-founded one, in part to help others en route to medical school. He also worked closely with a mentor, Nathan Lents, Ph.D., professor of biology at John Jay College, and joined the school’s research program. Despite his desire, lab accomplishments, and academic record, his plans hit a roadblock. “I applied to 31 medical schools and ultimately got 31 rejections,” Mr. Piszczatowski recalls. “So I took a year off and worked as a research technician [in the lab of Chandran Guha, M.B.B.S., Ph.D., professor and vice chair of radiation oncology at Einstein and Montefiore and associate director of innovation/tech at Montefiore Einstein Cancer Center (MECC)] at Einstein, continued my research at John Jay, became an adjunct laboratory instructor, and reapplied only to M.D./Ph.D. programs.”
Words like grit and determination come to mind when talking about first-generation college students—there’s a lot of internal drive and motivation.
Allison Ludwig, M.D.
By that time, he was able to articulate his goals and build a stronger case for how he could contribute to medicine. Mr. Piszczatowski was accepted to Einstein in 2013, where he later joined the lab of Ulrich Steidl, M.D., Ph.D., professor of cell biology and of medicine, and deputy director of MECC . There, he researched the role of anti-apoptosis genes in myeloid malignancies and helped develop a novel technique using the detection of sugars to distinguish unique populations of blood cells.
Mr. Piszczatowski, 33, matched to his first choice—a pediatrics residency in a physician-scientist track at NewYork Presbyterian-Weill Cornell Medical Center. “I hope to expand on my graduate thesis work,” he says, “and after residency, I’d like to pursue a fellowship in pediatric hematology-oncology, where I will treat patients and run my own research group.”
Looking back on his decade at Einstein, he noted several high points: his mother’s health improved, he met his partner (at Einstein), became a father, and received strong mentorship and guidance from Drs. Guha and Steidl. “It has been,” he says, “an awesome 10 years.”
Chaya Goldberg, Internal Medicine
Eighteen years after her first job as a science teacher and reading remediation assistant at a Brooklyn elementary school, Chaya Goldberg, 36, will soon begin her internal medicine residency at Rutgers-Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Jersey.
Ms. Goldberg, whose father is from Russia and whose maternal grandparents are from Poland and Hungary, always thought that she would become a teacher. She came from a family where education in the Jewish tradition and giving back to the community were highly regarded values. But she had to make her own path as she applied to a Mercy College program that offered night and weekend classes. “I didn’t go to a high school where they had SATs—I remember going to the Brooklyn Public Library looking for books about how to register and study for them,” she says. “Applying to college was a learning process.”
Within four years, at age 22, she had undergraduate and master’s degrees and was working as a second grade and math remediation teacher at a private school in Manhattan. But it was her interactions with students’ parents, some of whom were physicians, and psychiatrists and neurologists who cared for some of the children she taught, that sparked her curiosity about a career in medicine. She began researching medical education prerequisites, shadowing physicians, and saving for tuition and eventually decided to enroll in a post-baccalaureate program at Hunter College. She recalls the helpful encouragement of her boyfriend at the time, whom she would later marry.
“I said, ‘This is something I'm thinking about and that I'm going to try out. I'm going to take a few science classes and see if I can even pass,’” Ms. Goldberg recalls. “And he said, ‘Well, if medicine is something you want to do, then go for it.’ Ever since then, he’s been my greatest source of support, and I could not have done any of this without him.”
By the time she started medical school at Einstein, they had two children under the age of two (she had her third child in her third year). With the help of the office of student activities, Ms. Goldberg started an organization called Einstein Families. The group held networking events, produced resource guides for couples and families, held art classes and an annual carnival, and opened a second lactation room in the Belfer building. More recently, Ms. Goldberg has served as a pre-med mentor assisting other young women with non-traditional backgrounds who are thinking about careers in medicine.
Being a first-generation college student, she says, means learning to ask the right questions. “It’s figuring out the hows: How to study, how to apply to medical school,” she says. “You learn as you go and make a lot of mistakes along the way. Being deliberate about finding mentors and making use of whatever networks and supports are out there is key.”
She notes the next phase of her medical education may be similar in some respects. “I will continue to actively seek role models, learning from their successes and being unafraid to ask questions,” she says. “I’m excited about finally being able to be that doctor who can offer valuable skills to my patients and give to the community in a unique way.”
Gabrielle Concepcion-Taveres, Obstetrics and Gynecology
As a child growing up in Washington Heights and in the Grand Concourse area of the Bronx, Gabrielle Concepcion-Taveres, 28, recalls watching “Emergency Vets” on the Animal Planet channel, imagining a future as a veterinarian. That idea eventually gave way to thoughts about caring for people as she observed her friend’s mother, who was a physician and role model, and her own pediatrician.
At Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, Ms. Concepcion sometimes felt she did not have the same advantages as her classmates. Her mother, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, was her role model and biggest supporter, but was unable to pay for tutors or help review her college assignments. Ms. Concepcion recalls one student telling her she was only admitted to Bates “because of affirmative action.” As she neared graduation, Ms. Concepcion realized she would need to bolster her medical application and boost her MCAT score.
She got the experience she was looking for by working after graduation as a medical scribe in the former Bronx Lebanon Hospital emergency department and later in a private family medicine clinic. Those three years confirmed her desire to care for people in need. “It showed me the types and gravity of health disparities that exist here in our own Bronx backyard,’’ she says. “I wanted to stay in my community and give back.”
Ms. Concepcion has co-led Einstein’s chapter of the Latino Medical School Association, volunteered at the student-run ECHO clinic, and was a member of Einstein Future Advocates in Medicine, which mentors students from diverse and low-resource communities and encourages them to pursue healthcare careers. “It was important for me that kids saw someone like them could go to medical school,” she says.
She advises first-generation college students to take advantage of helpful resources and to support others along the way. “Don’t let other people tell you what you can and can’t do,” she says. “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
In July, she will begin her residency in obstetrics and gynecology at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. “My goal is to help reduce health disparities that disproportionately affect minorities and persons of lower socioeconomic status,” she says.
Taneisha Sinclair, Pediatrics
Before encountering annual snowfalls topping 6 feet and rigorous coursework at the University of Rochester, Taneisha Sinclair, 30, of Portmore, Jamaica, had to learn the basics of applying to college.
“It was a completely new experience for my family,” she says. “It took a lot of my own research to figure out things like ‘What does the application process look like? What do I have to pay for? What are the tests I have to take?’ A lot of people, their parents drop them off at college. I kind of just got on a plane by myself and came to the United States,” Ms. Sinclair says.
Once in college, the drastic change in climate wasn’t the only thing that took some getting used to. Ms. Sinclair recalled early struggles to find her place among confident peers who seemed more knowledgeable about graduate school admissions. “I began looking into all of these things that were required,” she says. “I definitely think being a first-gen college student is why I started med school later—it took me a little bit longer to figure out the process of how to get there.”
At a job fair, Ms. Sinclair looked for positions in a lab because she enjoyed research. An Einstein employee at the fair promised to keep in touch. Several months later, she called back to encourage Ms. Sinclair to apply for a job in a new lab headed by Kira Gritsman, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of oncology, of medicine, and of cell biology at Einstein. Ms. Sinclair spent two years there, took the MCAT, and later served as a study coordinator at Weill Cornell before gaining acceptance to Einstein in 2018.
She has since served as co-president of the Student National Medical Association, was a leader in Einstein’s COVID-19 vaccine volunteer efforts, and helped secure a grant to develop a new curriculum on vaccines. She also helped her younger sister navigate the college admissions process.
In March, Ms. Sinclair flew back to Jamaica so she could open her Match Day envelope among family and friends. Against the backdrop of balloons and a sparkling blue tinsel curtain, she jumped for joy, laughing and screaming as she clutched her Match letter. Someone popped a champagne bottle and confetti floated around her as the group learned of her match in pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Ms. Sinclair hugged her mother, who all those years ago helped her with a last-minute scramble through town to find a FedEx store that would deliver her college application on time.
Posted on: Wednesday, May 11, 2022