Elvis Camacho’s Unusual Path to Medical School

Now in the Ivy League, Elvis Camacho’17 couldn’t be much farther from the slums of Puerto Rico, where he was born. “It’s surreal at times,” he said. “When you first get that acceptance letter, you think it must be a mistake.”

Being from a world in which “little is expected of you and college is unheard of,” he was not supposed to get this far.

Mr. Camacho’s family—father, mother, and older brother—moved to Miami when he was a child, looking for better prospects. But his parents’ poor grasp of English made finding jobs difficult. Dad’s drinking soon split the marriage and drove him from the picture. For a while, Mr. Camacho and his brother and mother were homeless, sleeping on the beach or in cheap hotels. Mom eventually found work as a secretary, where she put in long hours. Brother got involved with gangs, drugs, and the legal system.

Mr. Camacho was left with little in the way of support or guidance. He started acting out, getting into fights. “Having to move around a lot kept me from having a close group of friends,” he said. “I was always the outcast.”

But a miscreant’s lifestyle didn’t suit him. “When I tried to do things my brother was doing, either I would get caught before it could escalate or I’d be too afraid of the consequences,” he said. As a teenager, in a period he now describes as “pivotal,” he began seeking out solace and direction from the church; it would grow to be a pillar in his life. It was during his time that he met Rebekah, a woman whom he married many years later, in 2010.

His experience volunteering with various Christian groups also, in another way, foreshadowed his life to come. “I’ve always had a passion to serve,” he said. “I knew from an early age that I wanted to help people. What better way to serve than to join the Marines?” Three months after turning 17, he did just that.

For the next five years, Mr. Camacho crisscrossed the globe, from Japan to Greece, Colombia to Iraq—nine countries in all. It seems a fitting way of life for a person raised without roots. In the beginning, all he wanted was to see combat. “I was never ambivalent about going to Iraq,” he said. “I saw it as an opportunity for glory. In the Marine Corps infantry, you’re nobody until you have a combat action ribbon.” He eventually got his wish: He shot and was shot at. He lost friends in the process.

Mr. Camacho’s nationalistic ardor diminished over time. The military’s hostility to free thought, in particular, caused him to bristle. “They gave me a weapon and told me who to shoot, but never why,” he said. Years later, as a civilian, he “started to read as much as I could. I realized that things aren’t as simple as they seemed in the Marines.” He grew apart from his military friends. “I used to be just like them, talking so carelessly about taking lives and invading countries. Now I’m so repulsed by it that I can’t even hold a conversation with many of them. Now I’m back where I started: I don’t belong to any group.”

Around 2004, during a firefight in Iraq, Mr. Camacho had an epiphany. “I started seeing people getting shot and others coming to their aid. I knew this is what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.” He would become a physician. In 2009, he returned home and enrolled at Miami-Dade College, then transferred to Barry University. But despite his zeal, getting into medical school—not to mention an elite medical school—seemed a remote dream. He had the will but did not know the way. “How do you get to an Ivy League? I would ask, and people would just laugh in my face,” Mr. Camacho recalled. “I wondered if I was doing it wrong.”

It turns out he was doing it right: In 2011, Mr. Camacho was admitted to Columbia University’s School of General Studies, from which he graduated last year with a B.S. in neuroscience. As an undergrad, he participated in two of CUMC’s “pipeline programs”: the Strategic Testing Application Techniques Program, which helps disadvantaged students prepare for the MCAT and medical school applications, and the Summer Public Health Scholar’s Program, which influenced him to pursue public health along with medicine. Without these pipeline programs, he said, he doubts he ever would have made it to medical school.

Mr. Camacho received his P&S and Mailman acceptance letters in Spring 2013. Now he is a year in, preparing for clinical rotations, eager to home in on a specialty. But the demands of medical school can be punishing. “I feel as if I’m already at a disadvantage because I had no preparation: I didn’t go to a great high school and I didn’t have private tutors. That meant that I had to put in an incredible amount of work just to catch up.”

Mr. Camacho and his wife now have two sons: Elvis Jr., three, and Rocky, five months. His academic workload has placed enormous stress on the family. Soon, things will get even more complicated: Rebekah was accepted to Columbia, where she will begin the occupational therapy program this fall. Balancing short-term needs and long-term goals has proved tricky. “But I know that this is only temporary,” Mr. Camacho said. “Eventually I’ll be able to provide my children with everything that I didn’t have. But until then, I won’t be able to spend the amount of time that I want to with them.”

In addition to keeping up with his studies last year, Mr. Camacho taught an intro neuroscience class at Columbia and was a teaching assistant with another Columbia pipeline program, the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program. Few people escape the kind of poverty he’s known, and fewer yet become doctors, so Mr. Camacho is something of a statistical anomaly. Now he is in a position to do for others what no one did for him: offer guidance, empathy, and a useful model for how to beat the odds.

“It’s as if these students in the pipeline programs and I share a bond because we’ve been through similar circumstances,” he said. “I spent a lot of time speaking to them about non-academic topics—or simply exchanging life stories, so they realize they were not the only ones going through tough times. To a lesser extent, it reminds me of the bonds I’ve made with the individuals I went to Iraq with. I would say that the majority of my classmates don’t know what it’s like to have no one believe in them. But since I’ve gone through this, I can talk to the disadvantaged students and earnestly tell them that if I can do it, so can they.”

Read the original article on the Columbia University Medical Center page.