Rachel Esparza ’15

ALUMNI Rachel Esparza 1Credit the cadavers for bringing Rachel Esparza to USF. They weren’t everything but they certainly were a draw. Another big part of the equation was the opportunity to avoid a lifetime of debt. Today the Joliet native—and the first person in her family to go to college—is a medical student at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

“I distinctly remember being extremely excited about the mention of the cadaver lab at USF when I was interviewing for the Biology and Environmental Science Fellowship as a high school senior,” Esparza says. The excitement did not wane, and the classes that allowed her to experiment on cadavers ended up ranking among her favorites.

Esparza had decided during her freshman year at Joliet Central High School that she wanted to be a doctor, and by the time senior year
rolled around her college preferences leaned toward Northwestern and Loyola. But USF won her over by offering the best financial aid package— by far.

“Being the oldest child in my family, and first-generation, I was worried about finances,” she says. “I wanted to avoid debt as much as possible, and I figured I didn’t need to go to a big-name school to get into medical school and become a good doctor.”

Choosing USF was easy, but falling in love with it was never a guarantee. Luckily for Esparza and USF, it happened. “My time at USF was a really eye-opening experience on a number of levels,” she says. “I really valued USF’s emphasis on the liberal arts. The classes I took, and experiences I had, completely shaped my perspective on the world.”

She wasn’t just a pre-med bookworm. In addition to exploring a variety of subjects—from philosophy and languages to ceramics and
yoga—she also made meaningful human connections.

“Having accomplished professors that I could call by their first names and talk to like normal people over lunch was great,” she says. She credits those experiences with helping her navigate the potentially intimidating experience of applying for medical school. When it comes down to it, she came to realize through her USF experience, no matter how accomplished people are, they’re still just people.

Esparza’s plan is to become a pediatric surgeon in an academic setting and to make an impact, through education and research, in global health. In her new home community in Connecticut, she is a co-leader of the Yale Surgery Interest Group, and one of her goals in that position is to form an Association of Women Surgeons (AWS) chapter at the Yale School of Medicine.

“This is something I really care about,” she says. “I’ve noticed that a lot of women, including myself, are hesitant to pursue careers in surgery because of the demanding lifestyle. However, after attending an exchange between various AWS chapters on the East Coast, I was amazed by how many women surgeons are actually able to be fantastic mothers and have fulfilling careers in surgery.”

Esparza is also serving her community as a patient navigator for a refugee from Afghanistan, and as a referrals volunteer for the student-run HAVEN free clinic, among other pursuits. But her interest in global health will take her far from home this summer. After a European vacation with two of her closest friends at Yale, she will start a research project in the pediatric surgery oncology department of Mulago Hospital in Kampala, Uganda.

She has done research before—at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago as a student at USF—but she has never been to Africa, and
has never spent any significant amount of time in a developing country. If you ask her, though, leaving her comfort zone in such a dramatic fashion is a good thing.

“From my experience, that’s the best way to learn and grow,” she says.

No matter where her work takes her, Joliet will always be home, and her family will always be important to her. Since arriving in Connecticut last August she has been home to visit four times. Family to her is not only her relatives but also the people who helped her become who she is today.

“It felt like the USF community was not only the place where I studied, but also a family,” she says.