Even today, seniorJisel Gomez remembers how language barriers prevented her family from getting healthcare when she was a child.
The daughter of Mexican immigrants, Gomez grew up in a north suburb of Chicago called Mundelein. At school she excelled academically, and, given her experience, it felt right to go into medicine.
Now she’s on the cusp of graduating from Notre Dame. Through her neuroscience and behavior major with a double major in Latino Studies, she’s been able to develop a deeper understanding of patient-doctor relationships, especially as they relate to Spanish-speaking populations.
Indeed, coursework and hands-on opportunities have shown her how social determinants of health directly affect certain populations, such as Latinx immigrants. It’s been these experiences that have solidified her career aspirations.
“I envision myself working within a concentrated Latino population, maybe in primary care,” Gomez says. “It’s important to give back to the community.”
Gomez is part of the first cohort of the Latino Studies Scholars Program, started in 2017 by the Institute for Latino Studies. Students receive a $100,000 scholarship in addition to summer internship or research dollars. Along with Gomez, there are four students in the inaugural cohort; two more joined the class of 2021 as sophomores and will graduate this May. In total there are nineteen LSSP merit scholars on campus, including a record six in the most recent class of 2024, each receiving a merit award for their demonstrated track record of leadership addressing issues critical to the future of Latinx communities in the United States.
ILS was one of the main reasons Gomez chose to come to Notre Dame. The decision was not easy as she had to turn down a full ride elsewhere, closer to home, where her parents were secretly hopeful she would attend. She credits mentors such as ILS Director and Professor of Political Science Luis Fraga, recalling his Transformative Leadership seminar as fundamental to convincing her of her own potential. Professor Fraga shares, “Jisel is one of the strongest students in my Latino leadership seminar this semester. She is always prepared, but most importantly, she very often participates in our discussions. There is nuance in her thinking and she is convincing in her arguments.”
During her ND career, Gomez met Congressman Joaquin Castro (D-TX) and legendary civil rights leader Dolores Huerta, among other key American authors and scholars of Latino heritage who visited campus. And, of course, she can’t downplay the connections she’s made with other students in helping her feel like Notre Dame is home.
“I knew I would be supported and have a community here,” she says.
Classes on Pan-Latino Literature, as well as the Border Immersion Seminar offered through the Center for Social Concerns in partnership with ILS, have broadened her perspective on diversity within the Latinx community. In turn, she’s come to a sharper understanding of herself as a first-generation Mexican-American moving through the echelons of higher education. As a scholar in LSSP, Gomez has learned to merge her career and community aspirations rather than see her role as picking one area to make an impact.
Particularly important have been the practical experiences she’s gained alongside coursework. During her freshman year, she worked at the Clínica Monseñor Oscar A. Romero in Los Angeles, helping with initiatives related to homelessness, migration, and healthcare. Her internship came through ILS’s Cross-Cultural Leadership Program, which pairs up students with local organizations to gain work experience and explore careers.
The following year, she was selected to participate in Northwestern University School of Medicine’s prestigious pre-med internship program. She worked as part of a family medicine division and shadowed clinicians in a variety of specialties.
Memories abound from her study abroad in Mexico experience early junior year — like the time she learned how to stitch up (suture) a pig’s foot! The program in Puebla was for students seeking to pursue a medical career but the journey abroad was a journey home, too: Gomez’s family is from neighboring Guerrero, and she got to visit many of her relatives for the first time. It was eye-opening to see what life was like for her family and their neighbors.
Alongside taking science classes and meeting family members, Gomez completed observations at the pediatric and adult emergency sections of a local hospital. In tandem, she learned how traditional and rural medical practitioners took care of people outside of more modern institutions.
These interactions outside of the clinical setting really hit home the importance of personal relationships. “I’ve always been curious about where cultural beliefs come from and how these beliefs influence patient-doctor relationships,” Gomez says.
After graduation, she’ll start a two-year stint teaching 5th grade math and science at a Catholic school in Dallas, Texas. It’s an opportunity that came up through ACE, Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education.
Then it’ll be off to medical school. Through it all, Gomez vows to keep all she learned these four years at ILS and Notre Dame close to heart.