Q&A: Kevin Perez, OMS-III, Touro COM – Harlem

Last Updated on July 27, 2023 by Laura Turner

Kevin Perez, a rising OMS-III at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in Harlem, took some time out from his studies to share his journey.

When did you decide to pursue becoming a physician?

Kevin Perez: During my freshman year at Elizabeth High School in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where I grew up.  I knew I loved science, and I wanted to help people. I considered various other careers, such as nursing and research, but I had my mind set on becoming a physician, and I have never wavered since.

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Personally, I have always held the duty and responsibility of taking care of someone’s health with the utmost reverence. In many cases, patients’ issues are self-limited, need healthcare maintenance, or require therapeutic intervention. Physicians are always at the crossroads of a patient’s well-being. This responsibility and duty carry the heaviest gravity. I want to be there for all of my patients; I want to be entrusted with such responsibility, and I find that performing this duty every day is, for me, the most satisfying and fulfilling life calling.

Did you have any healthcare role models growing up? How did this individual impact your pursuit of/passion for healthcare? 

No, and I am the first in my family to graduate from college, in addition to earning two master’s degrees. I will finally earn my medical school degree in 2025. But not having a role model or someone to ask for advice did not negatively impact my passion for healthcare. During my junior year of high school, I joined the Health Careers Program at Montclair State University (MSU), which prepares highly motivated students who are financially and educationally disadvantaged for health science careers. Without the program and a counselor, Ms. Washington, I would not have learned the tools to persevere and succeed through my tumultuous journey to medical school.

What did your path to becoming a healthcare professional look like?

Kevin Perez
Kevin Perez, OMS-III

As an underrepresented minority from an underserved community, I realized that after high school, I needed to focus on improving my education. I began by taking college courses at MSU. Summer math and English courses helped close gaps, and I enjoyed making new friends and living independently. However, I finished my freshman year at MSU with a 2.8 GPA. Also, I fumbled an opportunity to secure a summer medical internship Ms. Washington had lined up for me because I missed the application deadline. It was a terrible end to the spring semester.

So the summer following, I committed to being a better and more serious student and person. I started to leave my Xbox at home and made it my mission to turn my academics around. I earned several scholarships and awards and stayed on the Dean’s List from that point forward, graduating with a GPA above 3.4. In addition, I took advantage of back-to-back summer opportunities: attending the Summer Medical & Dental Educational Program hosted at Columbia University Medical Center and conducting food microbiology research in Madrid, Spain, sponsored by SUNY Old Westbury.

I thought I was a pretty strong candidate – until I took the MCAT and got a 22Q – obviously, not a competitive score. Still, I was happy to graduate with my B.S., and I headed home. That was the beginning of the hardest times in my life. I returned home without a job lined up and without money or a car. My only goal remained to get into medical school. I took a part-time job working as an afterschool counselor in Paterson, NJ, a four-hour commute round-trip and took to the old Kaplan books to study for the MCAT again. But I couldn’t study much, with work to repay student loans, helping my mom with rent and food, and commuting to and from work. I scored 26 that summer, and this time I applied to medical schools and got no responses.

I decided to become a more competitive applicant, this time at Rutgers University of Biomedical Sciences. At the end of the first semester, I attained a competitive GPA of 3.6 in medical school-level courses and applied once more. This time around, I was optimistic when I received two interview offers, one – from Albert Einstein College of Medicine and one from SUNY Downstate. New grades and the improved MCAT score made me feel confident about securing a spot. But when I opened an email from Albert Einstein and learned I was rejected, there were immediate tears – this one hurt. I thought I was so close. The second rejection from SUNY Downstate led to being placed on a list of alternates. I waited. Just before school was to start, SUNY asked me to fulfill vaccination requirements immediately on campus. I thought this meant something good was in the offing, but as things turned out, there would be no room left in the entering class. This time I didn’t cry. I just kept moving forward. I knew I needed a new MCAT score to keep going. In spite of all of the effort put in thus far and the rejections, I never considered an alternate career; I was always focused on getting into medical school.

I finished my Master of Business and Science at Rutgers and moved with my girlfriend to New York City to start our lives together. For three years, I worked as a high school teacher for students with special needs at Harlem Children’s Zone. In my last year, I became part of the leadership team that designed intervention services to help students who are at risk for college admission. At work, I interviewed prospective tutors for our high school students from underserved backgrounds. One interviewee, Gregory – who today is a mentor – was also applying to medical school, and he told me about a master’s program at a local medical school, Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine. He explained the curriculum is almost identical to that of first-year medical students, and with a GPA of 3.45 GPA or higher, graduates can matriculate directly into the medical school. Thinking this would be a great move, I applied to the master’s program at Touro, was admitted, and graduated with a GPA above 3.6. I finally did it – I was in medical school.

I just completed year two, and in the past two years, I’ve tutored anatomy and histology courses, served as anatomy class representative for first-year and master’s students, earned several scholarships, and was accepted into the National Honors Society. I even became the school’s student government president. I am now preparing for my board exams this summer while looking forward to clinical rotations in July. My now-wife Elyssa and I are expecting our new son in August. Crazy how life turns out when you don’t give up.

What challenges did you face pursuing your healthcare career choice?

Finances. I needed to work to keep up with rent and other living expenses. The biggest challenge was finding time to study, and MCAT prep courses cost thousands of dollars, and there are application fees to the American Medical College Application Service and the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine Application Service, which vary depending on how many schools one applies to. The fees amounted to thousands more dollars. It was hard to keep up. I was so fortunate to learn about the Touro MS program because it gave me a direct opportunity to validate myself, to prove myself right against an MCAT score that did not define me.

What resources did you use to help you pursue your dream?

I’ve taken advantage of almost everything I knew of in pursuing my career. I used federal grants, student loans, scholarships, Medicaid, MCAT prep, COMLEX, and USMLE prep, to name what immediately comes to mind.  If you come from a disadvantaged background, you must search, ask, and use everything at your disposal to try and make it an even playing field.

What would you do differently, knowing what you do now?

I would try to be more financially savvy. I had to learn it on the fly, on my own. I’ve stepped into unfavorable financial situations and, like my peers, now share a large amount of student loan debt. Knowing all the traps and having learned how crucial scholarships can be to staying in school, I’d be more careful the second time around.

What advice would you give students in a similar situation?

My first piece of advice is to never give up. It’s cliché, but if you really want to achieve success, you can never take your eyes off the prize. It’s OK to take time off, and it’s totally acceptable to fail and get rejected, but it is never OK to give up. If you truly want to get into medical school, keep your eye on the prize, take steps forward to get closer, and consider that your path might look different than what you had imagined. You may not be at the school you envisioned, the city or state, but what matters the most is not whether you fit into a specific picture. It’s you having the opportunity to dictate what that picture looks like.

What does your typical day look like?

Completing my second year, the days vary, as now I study for our board exams. But I usually start by waking up at 6 AM and going to the gym. I get home around 8:30 AM, make breakfast, and get ready to go to school. I am in class throughout the day, finishing around 2 PM. I stay at school, study in the library, catch up with friends on campus, and then head to MedAchieve at 5 PM MedAchieve is our “mini medical school” for high school students in Harlem. We mentor the students one-on-one, and I like to spend time with my mentees to help show them the way. I head home at about 7 PM and either order dinner or cook. I spend an hour or two with the flashcards on my Anki and then take the rest of the night off around 9:30 PM to be with Elyssa and Brock (our wonderfully happy dog).

Image of Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine. (2023, April 9). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Touro_College_of_Osteopathic_Medicine

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