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Student Spotlight: Juan Cerezo and Malek Maddah

News September 29, 2021

When asked to describe their life journeys, Lewis Katz School of Medicine students Juan Cerezo and Malek Maddah tell stories that are eerily similar.

They both immigrated with their families to the United States from Latin America and found themselves at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. While undergrads at Rutgers University, they benefited from pipeline programs that supported their dreams of getting into medical school. And they know first-hand what it feels like having to ignore a toothache or go to an emergency room for medical treatment because their families couldn’t afford health insurance.

Now, they are actively engaged in the Latino Medical Student Association (LMSA), both at Temple University and regionally, helping to foster a community of support and resources for fellow students, who like them, hail from an underrepresented community.

Over the next two weeks, members of the LMSA at Temple will be hosting a series of events at the medical school to recognize their ethnicity and celebrate their culture. The events are being staged as part of Hispanic Heritage Month, which ends Oct. 15.

The student organization will host an event that will focus on exploring the experiences of AfroLatinidad, a subculture of Latinx of African descent, and will hold a Q and A with a panel of Hispanic physicians from Temple University Hospital and Fox Chase Cancer Center. The group has also invited a speaker from the National Center for LMSA Leadership & Advancement and will hold a Latinx culinary competition, showcasing dishes from various countries.

“I believe these events are important because they highlight the Hispanic heritage,” said Malek, a second-year medical student and president of the Temple chapter. “The month is designed to celebrate and acknowledge our ethnicity and culture. We also want to educate others about our history and how we have contributed.”

While planning these events, Malek and Juan also have their eyes on something much bigger, preparing for the National Conference of the LMSA, which will be held in Philadelphia from March 4-6 at the Logan Hotel. The meeting is expected to draw about 500 Hispanic physicians, medical students, medical residents, and pre-med college students from around the nation.

Juan said he sees the LMSA as playing a vital role for Latinx medical students because it fosters a sense of community and offers networking and mentoring opportunities.

“A lot of us come from Hispanic neighborhoods and diverse neighborhoods, and then medical school is not as diverse. So, LMSA does give us a sense of community. The numbers of Latinx medical students are low, so it’s kind of a culture shock when you go into medical school,” he said.

“On top of community, it also gives us a way to connect with faculty. A lot of the faculty might have been members of LMSA when they were in medical school, or they just want to work with Hispanic students. So, it’s an easy way to connect with us and a good way for us to find mentors. At the national and regional levels, if your school does not have a diverse community, it’s a way to connect with students from other schools, just to find someone you can relate to.”

Juan said he thought it was “very important” for Latinx medical students to have Hispanic physicians and faculty members as mentors.

“I am an immigrant. I came to the United States from Colombia when I was 7 years old,” he said. “I was the first person in my family to go to college and now I am in medical school. When I talk to my peers in medical school, a lot of their parents are doctors. There’s a lot of difference in support. My parents, for example, don’t speak English or don’t understand what I’m going through.”

Both he and Malek, who immigrated to the United States from Venezuela at age 14, plan to give back to their community and advocate for health equity after they graduate.

“I remember times when I had to muscle through toothaches because we didn’t have insurance to cover a procedure for removing that tooth,” Malek said. “Everyone should have a fair and just opportunity to be as healthy as possible.”

Juan, a past president of the Temple LMSA, said he was excited to see the chapter grow to about 50 members over the last few years as the number of Latinx medical students at the Katz School of Medicine has also increased.

The Temple chapter is active year-round, Malek said, with an ambassador’s program that connects with Latinx students who interview at the medical school; creating care packages for middle school students in the local Hispanic community, and leading a medical Spanish class at the Katz School of Medicine.

“We’re constantly trying to foster equity and help our communities and our students,” he said.

Pictured: Malek Maddah (left) and Juan Cerezo (right)

- Lillian Swanson