From illegal immigrant to physician: One graduating medical student's story

DALLAS – June 4, 2003 – Aurelio Ibarra, the son of a seamstress and a maintenance man who immigrated illegally to the United States from Mexico in 1981, received his medical degree from UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas May 31 after overcoming tremendous obstacles in order to become a doctor.

The 28-year-old, who decided to be a physician as a child while translating at Parkland Memorial Hospital for sick relatives, wants to serve the Mexican-American community. His goal is to start a family practice geared toward Mexican-Americans in a city heavily populated with Hispanics, such as Dallas, San Antonio or L.A.

He will conduct his family practice residency at the California Medical Center in downtown Los Angeles.

“Patients who speak Spanish find it comforting when someone of their same background is treating them,” Dr. Ibarra said. “It also makes me feel great about myself.”

Dr. Ibarra worked multiple jobs, including cleaning up after incontinent patients on a graveyard shift, waiting tables and loading trucks, during a seven-year uphill battle to earn his bachelor’s degree without a green card.

In 1998 – nine years after applying – Dr. Ibarra received his green card and was accepted to medical school at UT Southwestern. When he received the acceptance letter, Dr. Ibarra said he shouted until people made him stop.

“I didn’t think I could get into this medical school,” he said. “I always told my family that if I was lucky enough to get into medical school, I would probably have to move away.”

After immigrating at the age of 8, Dr. Ibarra lived in Dallas, within miles of UT Southwestern. He learned English within a year, and graduated in the top 10 percent of his class at W.T. White High School – then ranked among the nation’s top schools.

In 1992, during his senior year, Dr. Ibarra was chosen as one of 30 students to participate in the first-ever Health Professionals Recruitment Exposure Program, or HPREP, a joint venture between UT Southwestern and the Dallas school district.

The goal of the program, which has grown to include about 100 students per year, is to help under-represented minorities or economically disadvantaged students prepare for college and gain exposure to careers in science and medicine.

The students spend six Saturdays at the UT Southwestern campus meeting medical students and faculty members, touring facilities and learning what steps to take to prepare for careers in these fields.

“One thing I will never forget about HPREP is hearing, “You can’t get into medical school without filling out an application,’” Dr. Ibarra said. “I thought to myself, ‘Hey, I can fill out an application. Go for it!’”

Dr. Ibarra is the first participant in this program to complete medical school.

As an undergraduate, Dr. Ibarra attended three community colleges before earning a scholarship to Paul Quinn College in Dallas. He then continued to work in order to save enough money to transfer to a school in the UT System.

“I thought I would have a better chance of getting into a Texas medical school if I graduated from a school in the UT System,” he said.

Dr. Byron Cryer, dean of minority affairs at UT Southwestern, met Dr. Ibarra six months before he began medical school.

“I think the most interesting thing about Leo is that he has a commitment to students who are up-and-coming, who are in situations not too dissimilar to his own,” Dr. Cryer said. “He’s worked hard to reach out to high school students who are in difficult circumstances to make sure they are directed toward the path of success.”

During his senior year in medical school, Dr. Ibarra worked as a coordinator of the HPREP program, representing the United Latin American Medical Students.

As Dr. Ibarra prepares to embark on his next challenge, he says more than anything, he is grateful for the opportunity.

“My family has always worked because they had to,” he said.

He paused for a moment.

“It’s nice to be able to go to work because I want to.”


Media Contact: Rachel Horton
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