KOKOMO, Ind. — Esmeralda Perez began kindergarten in a classroom where she didn’t understand a word of the English being spoken by her teacher and classmates. At 6, she had just left Mexico to be reunited with her mother, who was working in Frankfort.
Now in her mid-20s, she’s determined to give her own children a better start in life, and her Indiana University Kokomo degrees are the first steps toward her long-term goal — to become a physician.
“Not many people from my background get these kinds of chances,” she said. “You have to grab these opportunities and run with them.”
She earned a bachelor’s degree in biological and physical sciences in 2019, and returned to campus to earn an additional degree in biochemistry, which she will complete in May.
This summer, Perez will begin the process of applying to medical school, planning to enroll in fall 2021.
She plans to continue working as a certified Spanish medical interpreter at a clinic that provides free services to low-income families, and hopes to come back as a volunteer health care provider there when she is a doctor. It will be a chance for her to give back.
“Growing up, we didn’t have health insurance,” she said. “We always relied on the free clinics. Volunteering there as a doctor would be a good use of my skills. I’m able to understand not only the patients’ language, but their culture.”
Her plans were nearly derailed after a class trip to a college campus in middle school, when Perez learned her family hadn’t immigrated legally. With no citizenship or social security number, career goals requiring education would be difficult to impossible to attain.
“I always loved school and wanted to go to college,” she said. “I came home from the field trip and told my dad I wanted to go to college. I think he was trying to be realistic. He told me, ‘When you graduate, you’re going to work in a factory.’”
Not willing to give up, she investigated the path to permanent residency, and then United States citizenship. It involved sacrifice — during the fall of her senior year at Frankfort High School, Perez returned to Mexico, where she lived for 10 months while working through the legal process.
That move could have delayed her high school graduation by a year, but a Frankfort High School teacher stayed in touch and helped her complete the last four classes she needed to graduate on time with her class.
Becoming a legal resident, and then a citizen in October 2018, opened doors for her dream career in medicine.
“Citizenship meant everything to me,” she said. “If this opportunity hadn’t come up, I probably would have been a factory worker. That’s honorable work, but it’s not what I wanted to do.”
She worked a year after high school to save for college, and earned an associate degree at a community college before enrolling at IU Kokomo. Even though she didn’t have financial aid for her first few years of school, she is graduating debt-free.
Her family provided invaluable support as she earned her degrees. Her husband provided encouragement and picked up extra duties at home to give her the time she needed to study. This also allowed her to participate in extra experiences, like a tour of Eli Lilly, attending the Indiana Academy of Science conference, and conducting water quality research with Christian Chauret, dean of the School of Sciences.
She looks forward to the day she receives her medical school admission letter.
“I’m probably going to burst out crying,” she said. “It will mean everything I’ve been through and worked for has paid off.”
Indiana University Kokomo celebrates 75 years as north central Indiana’s choice for higher education.