Axana Rodriguez-Torres felt frustration and pain when her medical studies in Colombia were not recognized in the United States, where she and her family had been granted political asylum.
But now, as the UC Davis senior is recognized with the University of California President’s Outstanding Student Leadership Award, she shares a new understanding:
“As I’m pursuing my dreams, I’m helping others to pursue theirs,” said the 31-year-old. “This is why I needed to be here and discover another purpose in my life.”
UC President Janet Napolitano presented awards to Rodriguez-Torres of Elk Grove, Calif., and a UCLA student wellness campaign at a meeting of the UC Board of Regents in Sacramento May 14.
Her impact across UC
“The work of these bright students has a tremendous impact not only on their home campuses but across the UC system and out in their communities,” said Napolitano. “I’m pleased to have a chance to recognize their efforts and dedication to tackling tough issues that affect us all.”
Rodriguez-Torres, a double major in neurobiology, physiology and behavior as well as psychology, is being recognized for helping coordinate the annual UC Davis Pre-Medical and Pre-Health Professions National Conference, the largest such conference in the nation.
More than 7,500 attend the conference, and more than 80 percent of participants are high school, community college and UC students who are underrepresented in the field of medicine.
For the October 2013 conference, Rodriguez-Torres was responsible for the medical programming that brought to the conference about 50 of 700 speakers, including leaders of national organizations.
Helping with students’ struggles
Earlier, she met one of her own mentors through the conference and is committed to providing such opportunities for other students. “I’ve seen the struggles students go through. I can see I can do something about it,” said Rodriguez-Torres, who continues to serve on the conference’s organizing board as director of medical programming.
In nominating Rodriguez-Torres for the award, Adela de la Torre, vice chancellor of Student Affairs at UC Davis, wrote that her saga exemplifies a “tenacity of spirit that propels her social justice action.”
Rodriguez-Torres completed three years of medical school in Colombia before obtaining political asylum in the United States, where she cleaned houses, served fast food, and provided child care to help support her family and save for her education. As her English proficiency grew, she worked as an immigration consultant and a tax preparer for people with limited English.
Three associate degrees
Because her medical school credits from Colombia were not transferable, she studied at American River College — where she earned three associate degrees — before transferring to UC Davis.
Drawn to the university by the opportunity to work at the student-run Clinica Tepati in Sacramento, she has helped provide free care for the underserved, mostly Latino patients.
As a winner of a $10,000 Donald A. Strauss Public Service Scholarship, she established a prevention-focused diabetes education class that extended the clinic’s work. Her project provides monthly classes in nutrition and diabetes prevention as well as Zumba fitness classes at All Hallows Parish in Sacramento.
After graduating in June, Rodriguez-Torres plans to pursue a master’s degree in public health at UC Davis and then a medical degree on her way to becoming an internist focusing on diabetes prevention.