Maria Vides ’18 and her family were visiting relatives in the United States when her little brother, who had just recently turned 2, became ill. Just a little girl herself, Vides and her family returned to their native El Salvador for what would become a heartbreaking ordeal that lasted years.

For months, she recalls, her parents waited anxiously until a diagnosis came back: leukemia. After his treatment and relapsing, the family made the journey back north to see if U.S. hospitals could do more.

In the end, Vides’ younger brother didn’t make it. He was 6. She was almost 11.

The traumatic experience the family went through was compounded by the way the hospital staff treated them, says Vides, a public policy analysis (PPA) major on the pre-health track. Even though they were in Los Angeles where Spanish is spoken widely, says Vides, the communication gap was wide: “There were many times when things were said in the room and my parents’ opinions were discounted because they didn’t speak English.” 

Throughout all of this, Vides went to school in a new country and picked up a new language, and managed to focus her energy on her studies. Her goal: become a doctor – but not just any doctor, one who treats all patients with compassion and empathy, regardless of origin or native tongue.

In high school, she applied to numerous college prep programs in and around the city of La Puente, Calif. – only to be denied because of her legal status: Vides was undocumented (she now has DACA status). Never one to give up, she found out about the Pomona College Academy for Youth Success (PAYS), a program that prepares high school students from underrepresented backgrounds for college. She applied and before she knew it, she was spending her first summer on the Pomona College campus.

“It was PAYS, through the Draper Center, that first made me believe I had a future in higher education,” says Vides, who credits its staff, faculty and student mentors for the support she needed to attend Pomona College and become a leader as the current president of the Associated Students of Pomona College (ASPC).  

A woman with curly hair gazes off to the left in a pensive mood.

“At the core of the PAYS program is the importance of building community, and challenging oneself and one’s academic environment to meet the needs of all of its students, especially those on the margins,” says Sefa Aina, associate dean and director of the Draper Center for Community Partnerships. “Maria embodies that mission and we couldn’t be prouder to count her among our PAYS alumni.”

Adds Vides: “I’m the product of a lot of systems of kindness, of labor, of guiding me through the college application process, which was difficult and foreign to me, my parents speak some English, but have never been exposed to the higher education system in the U.S.”

Vides applied to a number of colleges and universities, but her heart was already set: “I turned down three full rides [scholarships] from top universities because I was still waiting for my decision from Pomona.”

That acceptance came and with it, an invitation to be part of the Pomona Scholars of Science cohort group. Vides recalls starting off as a molecular biology major before discovering “that research in the lab wasn’t everything I wanted to do.” Switching to public policy analysis with an anthropology concentration but sticking to the pre-health track, Vides wanted to be able to understand public policy from an interdisciplinary lens in order to bring about change in how health services are delivered.  

Vides, who describes herself as a very social person, has been part of a lot groups on campus, including Pomona’s QuestBridge chapter, a student group that serves the needs of first-generation and/or low-income students on campus; Improving Dreams Equality Access and Success (IDEAS), a student group that provides social, academic and financial support to immigrant students; and different student organizing movements.

Throughout her involvement, she has seen that a lot of the work done by students across different groups and channels has common goals. This inspired her to run for ASPC president so she could help pull together those efforts.

“Going through the pre-med curriculum as a brown low-income kid was a jarring experience, I had never had a chemistry class like my classes at Pomona. There were students who would tell me ‘I learned that in high school, didn’t you?’ The QSC [Quantitative Skills Center] and the cohort groups were really helpful,” says Vides, adding: “But I experienced a lot of issues adjusting academically that could’ve been avoided.” 

Even with the bumps in the road, Vides sees being at Pomona as a privilege and the culmination of communal effort. “I thought I was here by the merit of my work, but being here has taught me to look at bigger systems, I’m one of millions of undocumented people in this country and one of hundreds of thousands with DACA, and I know that not all those people have the same opportunities I have,” says Vides.

Vides has spent the past two summers working at UC San Francisco’s School of Medicine as a health equity research assistant, first funded through the Children’s Hospital in Oakland Research Internship and then by the Pomona College Internship Program (PCIP). These opportunities allowed Vides to gain a valuable set of experiences and skills in integrating anthropological, policy, and clinical qualitative and quantitative research methods that will propel her to her goal.

“Whatever I do I just want to focus my work on helping others navigate different cultural and institutional barriers, I want to be the person my parents didn’t have to help them. That may translate into a lot of different things in my career,” says Vides.

“For this to happen, I hope to attend a medical school that contributes to my career not only in the scientific basis but can also train me to be a humane physician, someone who can look at their patient as a person and not just someone who just says ‘here’s your medication’ and leaves.”