Jefferson Award Winner Launched Group For Potential Health Care WorkersBy Elizabeth Cook

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) Going to medical school is no easy task, especially for Jirayut Latthivongskorn.

Latthivongskorn left his native country of Thailand at the age of nine with his family to pursue the American dream.

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“The main reason that we moved to the U.S. was the financial and economic difficulties that we were facing back in Thailand,” said Latthivongskorn. “For my parents, moving to America was the best and only choice.”

Once they were in America, Latthivongskorn’s parents worked in restaurants to make ends meet and they encouraged him to pursue an education.

He graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in molecular and cell biology, but his teachers and advisers told him that that would be the highest level of education he would ever reach because of his undocumented immigration status.

“Medical school is one of the worst pathways you can take because there is the maximum number of barriers in terms of immigration status, explained Latthivongskorn. “Fortunately I am a little bit stubborn and when I do hear ‘No,’ I have been able to channel it as motivation to really keep going,”

So Latthivongskorn, with Denisse Rojas and Angel Ku, started a nonprofit called Pre-Health Dreamers. While controversial, the group helps other undocumented students who were pursuing a higher education in the medical field. Three and a half years later, Pre-Health Dreamers’ network now consists of 450 undocumented students, one third of them in the Bay Area.

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“I didn’t know if it would be possible to go to med school. My peers didn’t know if it would be possible to pursue a PhD or nursing and no one out there was talking about it,” said Latthivongskorn. “Yet we knew that there were so many of us.”

David Cruz Hernandez is one of those undocumented students who relies on Pre-Health Dreamers’ support. Hernandez’s parents are seasonal farm workers and he was the first one in his family to go to college.

“Its like starting from scratch again, you have to have some support, someone who can help you out,” said Hernandez.

Now Hernandez is pursuing his master’s degree in stem cell research at San Francisco State University and believes that he would be unable to do so without the organization’s support.

“They have all these aspirations but don’t know how to get there, so many questions and so many barriers in their way,” said Latthivongskorn. “Our mission here at Pre-Health Dreamers is to alleviate those barriers and questions, to make that path a little more transparent, a little bit more charted.”

In addition to providing a supportive network, Pre-Health Dreamers also connects undocumented students with legal assistance in order to attain their citizenship.

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For helping others like himself pursue a higher education in the medical field, this week’s Jefferson Award winner in the Bay Area is Jirayut Latthivongskorn.

Elizabeth Cook