Vanguard graduate, looking to study the brain, has cross-cultural medicine in mind

Dyane Velazquez graduated from Vanguard University on Thursday morning, one of hundreds of graduates at the commencement ceremony at Mariners Church in Irvine.

Velazquez looks forward to a bright future. The Santa Ana native is a first-generation Mexican American who graduated summa cum laude — and a semester early at that — with a degree in biology, concentration in neurobiology and minor in chemistry.

She wants to go to medical school and become a pediatric neuro-oncologist, studying the brain. One thing on Velazquez’s brain this week is a statistic she heard recently.

Less than 3% of the doctors in this country are Latina like her, she said.

“Having even just that dream in mind is quite significant, I feel, making a difference and providing comfort to patients that would prefer speaking in Spanish,” she said. “It’s just about making a difference.”

Of the 542 graduates on Thursday, 35% were first-generation college graduates like Velazquez. She remembers when she was attending high school at Orange County School of the Arts, doing things herself like filling out her financial aid forms, applying for college or speaking to her counselor.

Still, her mom Ary Herrera has been there for her every step of the way.

“She’s been my No. 1 supporter forever,” Dyane Velazquez said, fighting back tears. “If I wanted to do something, I wanted to achieve something, she was the one who would say, ‘You’ve got this, and I’ll be right there next to you supporting you.’ She’s been my rock.”

Dyane’s accomplishments have been considerable since enrolling during the coronavirus pandemic in fall 2020. She became the school’s first student Spanish translator, both at live events and for the school’s newsletter and website. These were among extensive experiences that also included time as an organic chemistry tutor, COPE Health Scholar at St. Joseph Hospital and a Youth4Vaccines Ambassador at an online forum with Dr. Anthony Fauci in 2021.

The latter opportunity was provided by her main mentor, Vanguard biology professor Dr. Itzel Calleja-Macias.

“Coming here was a really good decision,” said Velazquez, who was a Presidential Scholarship recipient. “I created really good bonds with my professors, my classmates, gained so much good knowledge about something that I’m really passionate about, biology, especially learning about the brain.”

Vanguard aced enrollment for first-time, full-time Latino undergraduate students like Velazquez, according to a recent report from the Education Trust. The university is doubling down on efforts to attract and support local students, with 85% of students coming from within a 100-mile radius of the Costa Mesa campus.

Additionally, 51% of undergraduates are eligible for the federal Pell Grant, typically given to students who display exceptional financial need.

Dr. Renea Brathwaite, the school’s Chief Diversity Officer and Dean of the School of Theology and Ministry, understands first-hand Velazquez’s point about how the language barrier can make a difference in the doctor’s office. He grew up in the Caribbean until the family moved to New York.

“Even though we spoke English, New York English and Barbadic English are not the same,” Brathwaite said with a laugh. “When I found a Caribbean doctor, a child of Caribbean people, instantly he made sense to me and I made sense to him. It’s not just a myth that people have better medical outcomes when their doctors understand them.”

The school supports its Latino students with resources like the Jesse Miranda Center for Hispanic Leadership. In 2015, Vanguard was the second university in Orange County to be a federally designated Hispanic Serving Institution.

Last year, the college unveiled the Patty Arvielo School of Business and Management, the first business school in the country to be named after a Latina.

Brathwaite said the university has to deal with not only systemic barriers, but interpersonal as well.

“We do have to work on building up the confidence and academic skills of our students, and the ability for students to engage cross-culturally,” he said. “Three percent, that means you’re going to schools where most of your professors are not going to look like you. You have to know how to engage cross-culturally when there is a power differential. That’s the reality, until there comes a time when we have much better representation.”

Velazquez was more than excited to graduate. Her dream medical school is UC Irvine, where she already has worked with Dr. Momoko Watanabe through the Summer Institute in Neuroscience program funded by the National Science Foundation.

Velazquez knows that at Vanguard, she was more than just a statistic. A school slogan is “Your story matters,” and hers is compelling.

“It is a small campus, but it’s like a family,” she said.


Posted on Daily Pilot