Seung Jin (James) Lee watched his parents buy over-the-counter medicine each time they got sick, wondering why they never sought medical treatment from a doctor like the other families in his suburban neighborhood.
Without health care, his family did not have time to spare on visits to the doctor. His parents could not afford proper health care because of their status as undocumented immigrants, nor could they afford to lose a paycheck from missing a day of work. Lee’s family’s struggle has now encouraged him to seek to become a doctor.
Lee, a first-year medical student at UCLA, is one of a few students who is open about his status as an undocumented student. He is also a member of the first UCLA club to advocate for the equality of undocumented medical students, MedDreamers.
MedDreamers, which became an official UCLA organization supported by administration as of Aug. 11, is a student-run group dedicated to financially supporting all undocumented students who wish to attend medical school, according to the group’s website.
The core mission of the organization is to financially support these students and to advocate for policy changes for students who often don’t have a voice, so that anyone can achieve higher education, said Allen Rodriguez, a medical student and founding member of MedDreamers.
Lee said hiding his status as an undocumented student throughout high school took an emotional toll on him, pushing him to be open about his status. However, he said he understands how this can be a sensitive subject for many who decide not to disclose their status.
“People like us need to open up more to have our voice heard,” Lee said. “I’m still afraid, so I understand people not wanting to be open (about their status).”
Marcela Zhou, also an undocumented medical student, has also opened up about her status in the hopes of improving the status of future undocumented students.
As a child to Chinese immigrants living in Mexico, Zhou attended school in Mexico and then California, crossing the border to visit her parents each weekend until her sister was detained at the border. After this experience, Zhou realized that what she and her sister were doing was illegal and was no longer able to make trips back.
“Growing up in Mexico, I always felt a bit different – I experienced a bit of an identity crisis because I didn’t know where I fit in,” Zhou said. “Over the years, I have always had pleasant experiences sharing my story with others: I think by sharing, it’s a way to help educate and encourage others to break down some of the injustices.”
Zhou said that as a member of MedDreamers, she hopes to make the process of applying for loans for undocumented students fairer.
“With MedDreamers, we want to level the playing field,” Zhou said. “We don’t want to have the stressors of figuring out how to get loans and finding a co-signor, on top of the stresses of going through medical school. We aren’t trying to treat our cases as special; we are just trying to make things fair.”
Rodriguez added state laws, work visas and permits allow undocumented students to practice medicine in California, which is one of the few states in which undocumented students can hold professional licenses.
“In California, we’re quite progressive,” said Zhou. “But across the country, undocumented people face quite a few barriers: In California, we can get apply for a license to practice but in many other states, there is not the same support.”
Rodriguez said undocumented students are unable to apply for federal loans to pay for tuition, limiting their opportunities to attend institutes for higher education, like medical school. He added he hopes to connect with other health care professionals and policymakers to enact policy changes allowing undocumented students to apply for federal loans.
Rodriguez said he doesn’t think the school knows how many incoming students are undocumented because the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine does not require applicants to disclose whether they have documentation or not.
The club, which began as an unofficial group in February, has raised over $10,000 to set up a scholarship fund for undocumented students who would like to attend UCLA’s medical school. Doctors, physicians and other faculty members from all across campus have donated money, Rodriguez said.
Lee said he values these scholarships because the money his parents saved only got him through his first undergraduate year. Through the generosity of friends, Lee was able to complete his undergraduate studies, only to face the same financial problem as he applied to medical school.
He reached out to friends again, used fundraising websites and published an advertisement in a local Korean newspaper to raise money.
Upon graduation, Lee said he hopes to begin his residency and work toward becoming a surgeon and helping undocumented families achieve proper access to health care.
Zhou said she is interested in the immigrant population and the effects of language barriers on a person’s health. Like Lee, she said she hopes to help underserved communities to improve immigrant health.
MedDreamers will continue to raise money throughout the year for students like Lee and Zhou. The group held a luncheon Aug. 16 in Westwood for about 100 guests who participated in a silent auction to raise money for the group. During the school year, MedDreamers hopes to reach its goal of $50,000.