From pain and intimidation to purpose and belonging: One first-gen student’s path to USC Dornsife
Jasmin Sanchez, a health and human sciences major with a minor in occupational science, is determined to become an occupational therapist — a role in which she feels she can help people advocate for their needs. (Photo: Mike Glier.)

From pain and intimidation to purpose and belonging: One first-gen student’s path to USC Dornsife

As a teenager, Jasmin Sanchez suffered a painful medical emergency that taught her to stand up for herself. Now the first-generation college student is a USC Dornsife undergrad determined to advocate for others. [7 min read]
BySusan Bell

Sophomore Jasmin Sanchez knows about pain. She also knows what it takes to have to fight to be believed.

When she was 14-years-old, she suffered a year of untreated chronic pain caused by an undiagnosed ovarian torsion triggered by a cyst.

“There were days where the pain wouldn’t let me move,” Sanchez recalls. The physical pain was compounded by the emotional and psychological distress she suffered because her doctor and her family didn’t believe her.

“It was very difficult,” Sanchez says. “I had been going to my general doctor for about a year because of the pain I felt in my body. But every single time I went, she referred me to a psychologist. She thought it was all in my head.”

Sanchez’ mother tended to put her faith in the doctor’s diagnosis, as well.

“My mother always said, ‘You have to listen to the doctor. If she’s telling you that, then it’s true.’”

But then the day came when Sanchez woke up and could not feel her right leg.

“It was just numb and cold. I remember limping and not being able to move it,” she says.

Her mother took her to the hospital, but Sanchez says she was told she was probably just suffering from a urinary tract infection and to come back in two days if she saw no improvement with the medication she was prescribed. Two days later, Sanchez was crying with pain.

Returning to the hospital, she says she had to wait seven hours to see a doctor, who tried to persuade her to go back to her general practitioner to ask for an ultrasound. In severe pain and determined to be heard, Sanchez demanded that an ultrasound be performed immediately in the hospital.

“I felt very alone. I didn’t feel like the health-care system was on my side, nor did I feel I had support from my mom,” she says.

The medical staff finally acquiesced, and when they saw the ultrasound results, their attitude immediately changed, Sanchez says. She underwent emergency surgery and has since made a full recovery. However, she has not forgotten the experience of fighting to be heard and to be believed. Remarkably, she isn’t bitter.

“Instead, I am grateful for that experience because it helped me understand what I wanted to do with my life,” she says.

Sanchez is now a sophomore at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences majoring in health and human sciences with a minor in occupational science from USC Mrs. T.H. Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy. She is determined to become an occupational therapist — a role in which she feels she can help people advocate for their needs.

“What attracted me to the health and human sciences major at USC Dornsife was that it didn’t focus only on anatomy, but also incorporated thinking about society, thinking about the individual. I think health care is in need of people who treat others as human rather than a checklist of symptoms.”

To pursue her career goals, Sanchez is planning to follow her undergraduate degree with a master’s degree and a Ph.D. from USC Chan, currently ranked third in the nation for occupational therapy.

Acting as her own best advocate

Born within two miles of USC to a stay-at-home mom and a father who is a driver for the disabled, Sanchez is the youngest of three siblings and a first-generation college student. Both her parents are Salvadoran and came to the United States in their 20s. Neither received any formal education, either in El Salvador or in the U.S.

While her family background made her path to college more challenging, Sanchez was also fortunate. Her parents bought a house near  James A. Foshay Learning Center, part of the USC Family of Schools, which Sanchez attended from 6th to 12th grade. There she applied to join the Leslie and William McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative at USC, a rigorous, seven-year, pre-college enrichment program designed to prepare students from South Los Angeles and East Los Angeles for admission to a college or university.

Although the idea that she might one day go to college was difficult for her parents to grasp, they did support her, attending all the required NAI meetings, Sanchez says.

“I don’t think it was a realistic dream for my parents, since they thought that once I finished high school I should automatically start working. College was not something they really had in mind for me.”

But just as she had done to get the medical care she needed when she was 14, Sanchez now became her own advocate to get accepted to USC.

“I remember that process was very difficult for me,” she says. “Because my parents don’t speak English, I remember filling out the applications myself and having to go to my NAI advisor and school counselor to ask for clarification on certain questions.”

While her mother believed her daughter would make it to college, she didn’t think she would get into USC. Sanchez’ elder brother, Carlos, was more supportive.

“He said ‘I told you since the first day you were accepted into the [NAI] program in sixth grade that you were going to make it. That you were going to get there and you were going to do amazing things,’” Sanchez says.

Diversity was a new experience

Sanchez grew up roller-skating on the streets close to USC’s University Park campus. Now she is buying her first pair of roller blades to ensure she gets to class on time.

But the sophomore still remembers her first day setting foot on the USC campus to go to Saturday tutoring classes as an NAI student.

“It was very intimidating. I had never really experienced diversity. I live in a predominantly minority community. Coming to USC and being able to see people from different backgrounds was a culture shock, even though I was just in sixth grade.”

Sanchez is honest about other challenges she faced as an NAI participant. In addition to the rigorous nature of the program, she had to endure taunts from other students at her high school who were not in the program and who treated those who were as outsiders.

While it was hard at the time, Sanchez says, “Now I realize it was very helpful to be in a group of students who were eager to learn and focused on attaining higher education.”

Sanchez says she also feels gratitude for all the opportunities she received through the NAI program.

“Once I got to USC, I realized my peers had very productive summers. They paid high amounts to take extra classes or participate in activities. NAI provided us with many of these expensive resources for free, such as tutoring and fun, extracurricular activities during the summer. Not only could I learn from those activities, but I could also put them on my resume, as well as my college application.”

Two classes she has taken while at USC Dornsife made a particularly deep impression upon her: A General Education Seminar that focused on Latinos in the United States and an occupational therapy course to help people understand how children succeed, especially those from low-income backgrounds.

“Both of these classes made me grateful to have been selected by the NAI program as one of their scholars. The program is truly beautiful and life changing. It gives opportunities to minority students who are struggling to reach higher education and it gives them the resources they need to get there.”

What goes around comes around

Sanchez is determined to give back. Since turning 16, she has volunteered at the hospital where she was treated for her ovarian cyst. There, she will give a presentation to doctors and hospital staff about how to improve customer service, particularly in terms of respectful communication with patients from different cultural backgrounds — a subject that’s understandably close to her heart.

Sanchez works with many different programs, including the Young Scientists Program, an experiential learning initiative of USC Dornsife’s Joint Educational Project, where she teaches third-grade science. She also volunteers with NAI, providing academic and personal mentoring as well as helping participants stay focused on the college application process.

Volunteering at NAI, Sanchez says, enabled her to see that others are facing similar difficulties.

“I am in a position where I can be there to help them, and make them feel heard. I will always want to give back to a program that gave so much to me.”