The best defense is a good offense.
David Hernandez ’16 MD’20 has played defense for intramural soccer all four of his years at Brown. But in the classroom, he quickly learned that if he didn’t go on the offensive, he would fall behind, and fast.
A student in the Program in Liberal Medical Education (PLME), which admits high school seniors to Brown and Alpert Medical School, Hernandez enrolled in “Introduction to Neuroscience” in his first semester. The popular course attracts hundreds of students each year.
“I was one more student. It was hard to get individual attention,” says Hernandez, whose class at Central Falls High School numbered less than 200. “It was something new for me.”
Also new was his struggle to keep up with his coursework. The valedictorian at Central Falls, a tiny city just north of Providence, he says he was “not prepared” for the transition to college-level studies. “In high school there were so many ways to get graded and assessed. Here there were only three exams,” he says. “It was a huge shock for me. … So I almost failed neuroscience.”
But Hernandez went on offense. “It was a wakeup call,” he says. He attended office hours, worked with individual and group tutors, and studied with fellow students. He figured out what resources he needed and where to find them, and never hesitated to ask for help.
Over and over, Hernandez, who wears thin wire-framed glasses and his dark hair cropped close, expresses gratitude for the people in his life, from his parents and high school teachers to professors, tutors, and friends, insisting that without them, “none of this”—four successful years in the Ivy League, on the cusp of medical school—“would be possible.”
Joseph Browne ’10 respectfully disagrees. The former coordinator of the University’s New Scientist Program, Browne met Hernandez when he took part in the week-long Catalyst pre-orientation program, which prepares underrepresented students to major in the sciences. Right away, Browne says, Hernandez stood out from his peers.
“Some people are just going to get to where they’re going, and David is one of those,” Browne says. “Yes, people gave him a chance. They were supportive. But it’s more than the role they played in supporting him. He’s just a very determined kid. …
“Other paths could have been easier that excluded the sciences, and he didn’t choose to do that. He had a choice, and he chose to stick with it.”
Since childhood, Hernandez has been familiar with big challenges. Not long after he was born, in Medellín, Colombia, an aunt who had moved to the United States and become a citizen began to petition the State Department to allow her family to join her. It took 15 years to get their visas; in 2008, just before his freshman year of high school, Hernandez, an only child, and his parents moved to Rhode Island.
Hernandez says his parents take education seriously, and they sent him to a Catholic school in Medellín through eighth grade, but private school tuition in the US was out of reach. Though Hernandez knew some English, he wasn’t prepared for full language immersion in an American high school—and ostensibly not one that perennially ranks among the lowest in the state, and garnered national headlines in 2010 when it fired all its teachers.
“But Central Falls opened their doors,” says Hernandez, whose fluent English still carries a Colombian accent. “They have a great ESL program. They encouraged me to work hard. It was a great school, in spite of what the media say, in spite of what everyone says. They always supported me.”
David Upegui became a biology teacher at Central Falls High School, his alma mater, during Hernandez’s junior year. They connected not only as fellow Colombian immigrants, but through their mutual affinity for science. “I remember meeting him very vividly,” Upegui says. “I gave my students a lab report to complete and I remember how his lab report was so impressive that I wrote on it, ‘This is college-level material.’ … He was not just completing an assignment. He actually explored ideas.”
Though Hernandez had been attending Rhode Island College’s Upward Bound Program, which prepares first-generation college students for higher education, since his freshman year of high school, Upegui’s comment excited him. “He wanted to make that happen,” his former teacher says.
That year Upegui formed Central Falls’ first Science Olympiad team, in which state high schools compete in science-themed events, from bridge building to meteorology to robotics. Upegui invited Hernandez to join the team, assigning him to the anatomy and physiology event with one other student, also a recent immigrant. With help from Alpert medical student volunteers, they prepared for two months for the competition, expecting to gain nothing more than new knowledge and the experience of a statewide academic competition. Instead, Hernandez and his teammate brought home the gold medal.
“I can’t even begin to tell you, the eruption from everyone there in that room because they understood what had happened: two immigrant kids, from the inner city, competing against all the schools in Rhode Island,” Upegui says, the memory still fresh. “And that sort of set the scenario for what would happen in the next few months. After that, David came back for his senior year and said, ‘I want to go to medical school, if that is feasible.’ I said, ‘Of course it is.’”
Hernandez began shadowing local physicians in high school. At Roger Williams Hospital he watched 15 surgeries, including gastric bypass and hernia repair, and talked to patients. He decided to apply to Brown as a PLME, and wrote and rewrote his application and essays, seeking help from anyone who would give it. “He said, ‘I want to go to the PLME program but it will never happen,’” Upegui says. “And then I got the call from him. He was opening the email [from Brown] and crying, he was so happy.”
Julianne Ip ’75 MD’78 RES’81, P’18, the associate dean of medicine for the PLME, says the program—which had a 5-percent admittance rate for the Class of 2016—doesn’t interview prospective students, so her office didn’t meet Hernandez in person until he arrived on campus. But “we ‘met’ him through the newspaper after he was admitted,” Ip says. The local media, hungry for good news out of Central Falls after so much controversy, were all over the story of the Colombian immigrant who rose to the top of his class and got into not only Brown but its medical school. (The high school got another shot in the arm two years later when Upegui, who before becoming a teacher was a data manager at Brown, won the Evolution Education Award from the National Association of Biology Teachers.)
The Providence Journal’s coverage of Hernandez caught the eye of Joan Wernig Sorensen ’72, P’06, ’06, a trustee of the Brown Corporation. “I read his story and said, ‘This is unbelievable,’” she says. She further connected with the future Brunonian because her husband, Paul (Pablo) Sorensen ’71 ScM’75 PhD’77, P’06, ’06, was raised in Ecuador. The Journal reporter helped Sorensen get in touch with Hernandez, and she and her husband took him to lunch.
“In the very beginning it was very difficult for him,” Sorensen says. “I told him that when I came here in 1968, from an all-girls Catholic school, I had taken two AP courses while most of my classmates had taken many more. I also told David that many of his classmates were up against the same thing when they came to Brown. The freshman year is the hardest.”
Hernandez tried to get ahead of the game by enrolling in two pre-orientation programs: Catalyst, the science program, and Excellence at Brown, a week-long, writing-intensive seminar that introduces students to the academic and campus culture. “I wanted to hit the ground running,” he says. “But I didn’t have the study skills. I didn’t have the prior knowledge. …
“After neuroscience, getting a tutor and working with all the students has become a routine. I turned what was a weakness into a strength,” he says.
Ip says she had worried about how Hernandez would transition to Brown. “He was coming from a small, supportive school, where he was a big fish in a small pond, and here he’d be a smaller fish in a big pond. I didn’t want him to feel intimidated,” Ip says. “But he asks for help. … And he’s always very willing to listen to advice, which has made him successful.”
Plus, she adds, “He really utilizes his resources.” Hernandez discovered a love for French during his first year, and wanted to get a tutor to improve his skills. So he traded Spanish tutoring with a student who was fluent in French. “I thought that was a creative use of his abilities,” Ip says.
Though Hernandez receives scholarships, there are always extra expenses. “During David’s freshman year, before he was in the swing of things, he needed money for books,” Sorensen says. “I gave him some money, and he found the cheapest editions he could online and tried to give the rest [of the money]back. I told him to keep it; he’d have other expenses. But he’s most resourceful—he has applied for and received many grants.” He also holds campus jobs, including as a supervisor for intramural soccer and a teaching assistant for Advanced Spanish.
Because he’d fallen behind in his coursework, Hernandez wasn’t able to fulfill his dream of studying abroad, but in the summer after his sophomore year he spent seven weeks taking intensive French at Middlebury College, and got to go to Montreal. It was nice, he says, to have “a break from science.”
The trip was possible because, during his sophomore year, Hernandez got his US citizenship. “A Colombian passport doesn’t get you very far in the world, but an American one does,” he says. “It was a very special moment. It opens the door. You can now travel anywhere you want.”
That includes his home country, which he hadn’t visited since he’d left five years earlier. Because it’s so hard to get a visa, it can be difficult to return to the US, even for someone who’s established residency and enrolled in college. “Getting my citizenship is just as important as gaining acceptance to Brown,” he says. “It’s a dream come true that millions of people wish they have and millions of people are denied each year. It’s definitely a privilege.” Now he goes to Medellín every winter break to see his family.
Hernandez, a biological sciences major, got involved with research early. As a freshman he took the “Phage Hunters” course, in which students find, name, and analyze the DNA of undiscovered viruses; then, during his first summer, he studied amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in Drosophila with the Brown Scholars Program. He’s also shadowed neurosurgeons, cardiologists, and infectious disease doctors. “Every single experience has strengthened my wish to be a doctor,” he says. “To see a patient walk out of the hospital feeling better thanks to the work a doctor did—it’s something priceless. It’s something I hope to one day be able to do for other people.”
But more importantly, Hernandez wants patients to be comfortable and knowledgeable when they walk out of his office. That’s what he says his unique position—bridging the gap between immigrant and citizen, able to navigate the Hispanic community—will bring to his practice. “I want to be a doctor that my parents can go to—the doctor they haven’t had. … I want to give back to my community, to people who have gone through the things my parents have gone through.” Hispanic patients, he adds, “need someone who can speak the language, who can tell patients their options, their resources, who can explain insurance and different treatments.”
“He’s the kind of person I would want to have as my physician,” says Upegui, who has kept in touch with Hernandez. “I want someone who is a human, who makes their patients human again—someone who understands the complexity of the human experience. I don’t know if he sees that in himself.”
Sorensen has seen hints of what may one day be Hernandez’s bedside manner. In addition to the “touching emails” that he sends regularly, updating her on his coursework and grades, she says, “When my husband had knee surgery, David wrote to ask for his phone number so he could call him and wish him well.”
Ip, who taught Hernandez in her PLME senior seminar last semester, says he wrote thoughtful reflections for her class. “I think [as a physician]he’s going to bring a phenomenal amount of insight,” she says. She adds, “As an immigrant and a first-generation college student, he’s very proud of that. He knew he didn’t start at the same place as everyone else. I don’t think I’ve met many kids who have had to work as hard to get where he is.”
Medicine, Hernandez says, is “a field that’s very hard to get into, even more for a minority student, even more for a recent immigrant.” Though he makes time to ride his bike and play soccer, which help him get his mind off school, he rarely has time for chess anymore—he was a state champion all four years in high school, and his team won the Ivy League Chess Championship during his freshman year—or other extracurriculars. “I gave all my life to academics,” he says. “I went from getting 60s to getting 80s. It feels good to be in this position, because medical school is right around the corner.”
His pre-med requirements complete, he says he’s been able to enjoy his senior year, taking courses in exercise physiology and French photography as well as infectious diseases and biochemistry. “I’m finishing strong,” he says. He was thrilled to learn he’d met the requirements to earn a Bachelor of Science: “a nice reward,” he says. As for the rigors of med school, Hernandez says he feels prepared. “I’ve learned how to study. I’ve fallen in love with it,” he says, describing a strategy of reviewing every lecture within a few hours of class “to memorize concepts, clarify doubts, and identify questions.”
Browne, who now works at the MIT Sloan School of Management, says Hernandez draws satisfaction not just from his achievements, but from his struggles. “He’s aware of the frustration he felt, and how real and valid and important it was in that moment,” Browne says. “And now, in the grander arc of things, he’s past that. It could have been easier, it could have been better—and it was always going to be fine.”