IU School of Medicine celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month: Latino Medical Student Association president shares immigration experiences
Laura Gates Oct 08, 2021
Meet Alejandro Bolivar, Class of 2022
Every email Alejandro Bolivar sends out to members of the Latino Medical Student Association (LMSA) at Indiana University School of Medicine starts the same: “Hola, Familia!”
Finding and fostering a close-knit community for Hispanic and Latinx medical students was important to Bolivar, who serves as LMSA president. Before he was accepted to IU School of Medicine, he had never visited the state of Indiana. It was the second time in his life when he found himself needing to expand his “familia.”
The first time was at age 15, when his family immigrated from Caracas, Venezuela to Tampa, Florida. He had mixed emotions about coming to a new place, assimilating into a new culture and forming new relationships.
“I was scared when my parents brought up the idea of going to the United States because I didn’t speak English, and I thought it would be hard to learn a new language and make new friends,” Bolivar recalled. “I was afraid but kind of happy, too. It was exciting to go the United States and live the ‘American dream.’ I envisioned my life like a movie.”
Soon to become the first physician in his family, Bolivar is grateful for the opportunities he has been given in America, but the journey wasn’t always as he imagined.
“Living around family is the thing I missed the most,” he said. “My first Christmas in the United States was the saddest. It was just my parents and one of my uncles who lived in Miami.”
Over time, more of his Venezuelan family members were granted asylum in the United States as their home country spiraled into political and economic chaos. A recent Council on Foreign Relations article explains why Venezuela is internationally viewed as the “archetype of a failed petrostate” where the economy is overly dependent on fossil fuels, power is concentrated in an elite minority and governmental corruption is widespread.
After five years of trying, Bolivar’s mother won a lottery for an American visa, allowing his family to immigrate.
“It was beautiful in Venezuela, but there was insecurity and crime,” he said. “My parents saw what Venezuela had been turning into and what it would become.”
He recalls one terrifying time when he was home alone and burglars came to scope out his house. They were peering through the windows and banging on doors as he hid. Worse tragedy struck his next door neighbors on both sides—their children were kidnapped.
“I couldn’t ride my bike outside in my neighborhood because it was too dangerous. My parents put electric fencing around our house so we could play in the yard with our puppy,” Bolivar recalled.
When he moved to Tampa, Bolivar remembers the joy of riding his bike around the neighborhood with a friend: “We would go to the gas station nearby and buy candy. We rode our bikes every day!”
Bolivar worked on his language skills by watching movies with captioning in English and received extra support through his high school’s English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program.
“I made a lot of mistakes when I spoke, and people would help me. Everybody was super nice,” he said.
Becoming a doctor
Shortly before his family immigrated to the United States, Bolivar’s father was hospitalized with H1N1 influenza during the 2009 “swine flu” pandemic.
“That was my first time watching interactions between patients and doctors,” Bolivar said.
His interest in medicine was further piqued by an outstanding high school biology teacher.
“I remember one lesson about the endocrine system that I really, really liked. It’s so cool, all the checks and balances the body has for itself,” said Bolivar, who later began volunteering in a local hospital.
He earned his undergraduate degree in microbiology from the University of South Florida. He then applied widely to medical schools and was excited to be accepted to IU School of Medicine—although he knew nothing about Indiana.
The first time he experienced snow, Bolivar gleefully zipped up his new winter coat and ran outside to make snow angels with his roommate. While the novelty of wintery weather has worn off, Bolivar continues to appreciate the “familia” he has found in Indianapolis.
He initially met other Hispanic medical students though a Foundations of Clinical Practice (FCP) course offered in Spanish. One of the instructors, Javier Sevilla-Martir, MD, assistant dean for diversity affairs and professor of underserved Indiana patients, quickly became his mentor.
A Honduran immigrant, Sevilla easily related to Bolivar.
“I see myself in him,” Bolivar said of his mentor. “We come from similar places, and he has all these achievements. He has taught me that I can make it. And he has taught me the value of relationships—really investing in patients and being there for them, and being there for students.”
Bolivar has worked under Sevilla at the student-run community outreach clinic for the last three years and is now clinic manager.
“He is the student responsible to make sure the clinic runs smoothly and the liaison between faculty and students at the site, and he does it with expertise,” Sevilla said. “I have seen how excited he is to teach other students and participate in activities in the community. He is a great leader among his peers.”
As a Latin American immigrant, Bolivar can relate to many patients at the clinic and communicate with them in their native language, alleviating one of the major barriers to health care within the Hispanic community.
“The Latino population is the second-fastest growing minority group in the United States, so the need for physicians to serve these patients is huge,” Bolivar said. “A big part of good health care is being able to understand your patient—to understand their struggles and who they are, speaking the same language and having a common culture.”
An example of providing culturally competent care would be understanding why Hispanic diabetes patients might resist cutting down on tortillas (a diet staple) and taking their insulin.
“Some non-Latino doctors don’t know there is a big fear in the Latino population that insulin will hurt you, so it’s important to take the time to explain what insulin is and what it does,” Bolivar said.
As LMSA president, Bolivar leads meetings, organizes events and collaborates with leaders of other student organizations on initiatives to improve diversity, equity and inclusion at the medical school. Last year, he led a series of lectures on issues relating to Latinx identity and racism.
He enjoys annually attending the LMSA national conference, where Latinx medical students from across the nation gather (virtually or in person).
“It’s so many young Latino people who are so excited to be with each other. It’s a huge collaboration,” he said. “Everybody is there for each other, teaching each other and giving advice, showing off accomplishments. It’s inspiring.”
Bolivar credits his cultural heritage with teaching him the value of generosity and self-expression.
“In Venezuela, people like to give and are willing to do any small favor you could ask,” he said.
Sevilla sees this quality in Bolivar as he relates to his peers and cares for patients at the clinic.
“As a student, he has been an eager learner, and as a caregiver, he is passionate and committed,” Sevilla said. “There is nothing better than to have highly motivated students with passion for service like Alejandro.”
Sharing cultural traditions: New Year’s Eve superstitions
The holiday season is celebrated big in Venezuela. On New Year’s Eve, everyone participates in symbolic practices which signify prosperity and well-being in the coming year—like keeping money in your pocket and throwing lentils in the air at midnight for good luck.
Alejandro Bolivar’s favorite New Year’s tradition is packing luggage, then taking the suitcase to the end of the street, foretelling of travels to come in the new year.
“Whatever you want to do in the coming year, you have to do something to symbolize that,” Bolivar explained. “You take your luggage and run to the end of the street and back as many times as you want to travel.”
Venezuelans are superstitious about many things, he said.
“When you didn’t want it to rain, you would crisscross a fork and knife to keep it from raining,” Bolivar said.
When asked how well that works, he chuckled and replied, “Back in Venezuela, it worked.”
Read the Hispanic Heritage stories of other IU School of Medicine students featured in this series: Rebecca Zapf-Pedraza and Doriann Alcaide Amador.
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