It was near the end of high school when Jirayut “New” Latthivongskorn realized that he wanted to make an impact on the American healthcare field. His mother was rushed to the hospital in Sacramento after fainting and losing significant blood. They soon discovered that she had several tumors to take care of. New’s parents were recent immigrants from Thailand and didn’t speak English. His older siblings were busy with work, so New had to help his family navigate a complex healthcare system from translating at doctor visits, taking care of his mother, and handling insurance matters.
“It was the beginning for me to think about what I could have done in the situation, like if I was a doctor or healthcare provider,” he said.
New’s parents had given up so much after economic and social burdens pushed them to move to California from Thailand when New was nine years old. His parents worked long hours at restaurants as waiters and cooks in order to make ends meet. Their drive motivated New at a young age to excel academically and master the English language so he could achieve the American Dream. But because New was undocumented, there were still countless obstacles awaiting him on that journey.
New applied to a variety of University of California schools and was accepted into UC Davis with the Regents Scholarship that would have covered most of tuition costs. Right before the school year would have started, the scholarship offer was rescinded because he was missing an important document in his paperwork: a green card.
Growing up, New had experienced fear of friends and the greater community finding out about his status, but this was different. “That was my first time coming up against an institutional barrier,” he said. New was prepared to go to community college instead but his family came together to support one year at UC Berkeley.
After that, he would have to find the funds to continue on his own. “In my second year of college, I started getting desperate,” he said Luckily, in 2010, he received a scholarship from Educators for Fair Consideration (E4FC), nonprofit that supports low-income immigrant students in their pursuit of a U.S. college education. That was a gateway for New to becoming active in organizing for immigrant rights.
Getting involved with groups like the E4FC, ASPIRE, and groups on the UC Berkeley campus opened up New’s eyes to a community of undocumented students who were facing the same struggles. As he neared his graduation from Berkeley, New refocused his goal to going into the medical field but he still had so many questions as an undocumented person. “Is it even possible to go to med school? Where would I apply? How would talking about my immigration status affect my chances?” New said, remembering the confusion he felt.
“We didn’t know anyone who had gotten in to med school as undocumented but people said they had heard of someone who had heard of someone…It was like trying to find a unicorn.”
To solve that lack of structure and support, New co-founded Pre-Health Dreamers with two colleagues from E4FC, a group that two years later is growing across the country to empower undocumented students in their pursuit of graduate and health professional studies. After graduation, New interned at organizations relating to healthcare access and policy, which caused him to become interested in public health alongside the practice of medicine. “My parents and friends are undocumented and when they get sick, they don’t have access which is ridiculous.
I want to change that.” Shortly after DACA passed, New heard about Lending Circles and other programs that helped finance the cost of the application. He had already applied for DACA but he was interested in learning about credit-building. Now that he and his friends had SSN numbers, joining the Lending Circles could help them get started on a path of financial stability. New used his loan to build credit and pay for his medical school applications. “It has been very helpful. Now I have good credit and learned a lot after going through the financial trainings at MAF about managing money,” he said. All of New’s hard work paid off because he is now the first undocumented medical student accepted to UCSF School of Medicine.
With one week away, he is anticipating the start of an exciting journey and passing the Pre-Health Dreamers torch to the next generation of leaders. His main piece of advice for other undocumented youth is to speak up and seek help. “I got here because I had organizations that helped me come to term with what it meant to be undocumented,” he said. “As an Asian, undocumented youth, the fear was so much more pronounced. I know what it’s like to have silence define my life and my family’s.” New believes in finding mentors and advocate to help find opportunities. Perseverance is also key for him when making decisions.