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September 05, 2023

“We can be the light for others”: A Venezuelan medical student dreams of serving her community

Stephanny was a chemistry student in Venezuela when a chance event — an invitation from an orthopedic surgeon to watch one of his surgeries — convinced her to pursue medicine as a career.

Venezuelans Stephanny, Geraldine and their little brother

She describes it as a “calling” and says she “felt like I was in the right place.” Inspired by this experience, she took the entrance exam and resolved to study medicine.

However, in 2016, Stephanny’s sister Geraldine, 19 at the time, fell ill. A severe fungal infection that began in her jaw spread to her lungs, and Geraldine ultimately fell into a coma. Unfortunately, her prognosis was poor. At the advice of the doctors, the family made their final goodbyes.

Stephanny was determined to ensure her sister would receive every possible chance of treatment, regardless of cost. Living at the hospital for two months, she traded shifts with her parents to keep watch over Geraldine and found it difficult to eat or sleep. Medical expenses began to pile up. Stephanny says they “had to pay for everything…the medicine, the gauze, the gloves, the gowns, the tubes, everything.”

After two months, the family had no more savings.

Unable to continue her studies and help support her family financially, Stephanny made the painful decision to leave Venezuela. “If I don’t do it, my sister is going to die. I’m the eldest, our parents are too old by now, so I think I have to freeze my career and go to another country to help them.”

Stephanny found a chance to restart in Mexico and doesn’t hesitate to say that her journey and process of resettlement in Mexico City was paved with difficulty — “It was a risky decision, very scary.”

However, she is equally as emphatic about her ultimate success: “In the end, I think it was the best decision I have ever made.”

Stephanny’s educational journey took a few turns in Mexico City, however. Although she was still in the medical field, supporting her family by teaching anatomy, microbiology, parasitology and gynecology at a nursing school, it took four years for her to restart medical school. Stephanny had to go through an extended legal process, including applying for asylum status, preparing her documents and certificates, and taking several revalidation tests and a university entrance exam. The process was extremely expensive.

Stephanny originally questioned whether she should return to medical school, initially studying nursing. But soon, she told herself, “No, this is not what you are meant to do; it is nowhere near what you want.” Her parents played a pivotal role in her return to medical school: her father encouraged her to trust in herself, and she credits her mother for her tenacity in pursuing her ambitions. After an extended bureaucratic process, she was able to revalidate 30 percent of her medical studies.

Stephanny knew what a commitment medical school was — not only academically, but on an emotional, mental and financial level. She describes it as “a full-time job… You are pushed to the limit.”

She credits receiving an Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative (DAFI) scholarship with allowing her to pursue her studies more single-mindedly: “Studying medicine is expensive between the materials, the copies, the medical equipment, transportation and so on. The pressure builds up, so receiving the scholarship was definitely a relief.”

Stephanny learned about the DAFI program from Casa Refugiados, a UNHCR partner in Mexico; now, after so much investment into continuing her studies, she is able to devote herself completely to classes without having to worry about balancing education with a part-time job.

Reflecting on her drive to pursue medicine, Stephanny says she has always been “someone who really likes to help,” something she has in common with her family. “We can be the light for others; we can set a different example.” Her own journey motivates her to be of service to others: “I know what it means to be in a difficult situation because I have experienced it myself. I do not expect anything in return.”

Venezuelan Geraldine smiling

Even beyond her professional ambitions or desire to serve her community, medicine represents a moral compass and source of conviction for Stephanny.

“[Doctors] can be the light through difficult times. Even when I am disappointed in some things, I continue to believe that humanity can be better and that people can be better.”

As she reaches closer and closer to achieving the dream that she first had watching a surgery, Stephanny is already planning her next steps, inspired by the keystone role she believes medicine plays in supporting local communities and in forging a path of hope.

While she still prioritizes supporting her sister and family, Stephanny is also considering opening a foundation or school for underserved populations. She is resolved to not just excel in medicine but to anchor her future work in solidarity with those who are still experiencing similar obstacles.

“When you go through so many difficulties, you have two options…you either contribute to society or you don’t. I will."

How to help...

Educational programs are empowering young refugees to create a bright future for themselves, giving them newfound hope after the challenging circumstances they have faced. By becoming USA for UNHCR’s newest monthly donor, you too can play a vital role in helping displaced people thrive and achieve their dreams.

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