Felix Contreras is, by definition, a dreamer.
Not the kind the government categorizes as an undocumented immigrant whose parents illegally brought him to the United States. Contreras is a dreamer in the classic sense, defined by Merriam-Webster as one envisioning “ideas or conceives projects regarded as impractical.”
What else can you call a black Hispanic kid from the Dominican Republic who almost flunked out of high school and whose best friend died of a heroin overdose—yet he’s determined to become a doctor?
Growing up in New Jersey’s Atlantic City area, where he settled with his family in 1996, Contreras was the smartest in his social circle, with an aptitude for math and chemistry. Yet he did poorly in school, a casualty of the high stress and low expectations that were the norm for his impoverished neighborhood.
“I knew there were really smart, motivated black and Hispanic people in the world,” he says. “I just hadn’t met any.”
That changed in the summer of 2012, after Contreras applied and was accepted to the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program (SMDEP) on the Yale University campus. Funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, SMDEP is a free, six-week academic enrichment program that equips college freshman and sophomores from underrepresented backgrounds to pursue careers in medicine or dentistry.
“It was the first time in my life I was surrounded by brilliant African-American and Hispanic men and women,” he explains. Over the course of that summer, he began to understand that socioeconomic and environmental factors played a role in the conditions back home. “People’s environment affects how they think, their health. If you don’t have the basic things satisfied, there’s no way to reach your potential.”
Even now, his family is at risk of losing their home—a circumstance he attributes to Atlantic City’s persistent economic stagnation. “It’s falling apart. All the casinos are closing down. We have 7,000 people unemployed,” he explains. “My dad works in a casino. My mom is a cosmetologist, and her income comes from the people who work in the casinos. If the people who work in the casinos can barely afford food, they’re not going to be worrying about their hair.”
“When I tell people about my plans, they say, ‘You know that’s hard, right?'” he says, then laughs. “Yeah, I know it’s hard. That’s why I’m in it!”
He acknowledges that, on paper, his future may seem precarious. “The statistics don’t lie. I’m an immigrant. First generation. Minority. English is my second language. I did terrible in high school. Started in community college. And live in a medium-low-income family.”
“When you look at all that, the odds of making it, of even graduating with a bachelor’s degree, are low. So low.”
Yet that’s exactly where Contreras is headed now that he’s completed his associate’s degree in biology, sociology, and health services. He’s currently preparing to enroll in Amherst College on a full scholarship, with an eye toward medical school and, eventually, a career in public health.
Thanks to his six weeks at SMDEP, he feels equipped to face down the obstacles he’s bound to confront. “The thought of trying to become a physician, especially coming from my background…it was scary,” he muses. “But that summer made me feel proud that I’m Hispanic, proud that I am black.”
SMDEP is currently recruiting for its 2015 summer program through March 1 at 12 sites across the country, including Case Western Reserve University, Columbia University, Duke University, Howard University, Rutgers University, University of Texas, UCLA, University of Louisville, University of Nebraska, University of Virginia, University of Washington, and Yale University.
For more information, visit http://smdep.org/apply-to-smdep/.