Vanessia Garcia

After an Unusual Initiation into Healthcare, MS Student Vanessa Garcia’s Passion for the Field Continues to Expand

Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) student Vanessa Garcia, PPA ’22, MS ’23, had an unexpected introduction to the world of healthcare. When she was 10 years old, she was helping her family in the kitchen when her Abuelita cut her hand while chopping.

“She turned to me calmly—with no fear in her eyes— and told me to get the sewing kit,” Garcia said. “It was second nature for her.”

After some hesitation, Garcia helped her grandmother sew up her cut.

“She patched it up with a Band-Aid and kept cooking,” Garcia said. “Within a couple of weeks, it was completely healed aside from some scarring. That definitely sparked my interest in medicine—the idea that something so simple could produce these healing powers, in a sense, and put a cut back together. “

This experience also fueled Garcia’s desire to work with Spanish-speaking communities.

“Now that I’m older, I’m able to understand why my grandma just wanted me to treat her instead of taking her to the doctor,” Garcia said. “Maybe she didn’t have insurance at the time, or maybe she was concerned about the language barrier.”

One motivating factor for Garcia is connecting with future patients by speaking their native language and sharing their cultural understanding of certain remedies.

“If a patient told me that they sewed up their hand, I’m not going to look at them like they’re crazy or scold them for doing that instead of coming straight to the doctor,” Garcia said. “I’m familiar with different traditions and home remedies within the Mexican community, so I could understand why they made those choices.”

Garcia’s parents are both immigrants from Mexico City. She is not the first in her family to graduate from college—her mother, a teacher, earned a master’s degree—but she is the first to pursue a career in medicine.

Since obtaining a license as a Medical Assistant in 2014, Garcia has acquired ample experience in the healthcare industry, both as an employee and a volunteer. Eventually, she received her bachelor’s in Biological Sciences from the Southern California University of Health Sciences.

“Every class was only five weeks long—so you’re doing organic chemistry, biology, anatomy, and physiology all in five weeks,” Garcia said. “It was a rude awakening, but eventually, I caught on.”

Now at KGI—after completing the Postbaccalaureate Pre-PA Certificate (PPA) program and one year into the Master of Science in Applied Life Sciences (MS) program—she feels that she has taken her learning to a deeper level.

“As an undergrad, I did a lot of memorization and would forget much of the information after a few weeks because I would be so focused on the next class,” Garcia said. “At KGI, though, I retain the information. I feel like I’m truly learning.”

In the PPA program, she greatly appreciates learning from the Senior Director and Instructor of Postbaccalaureate Programs, Dr. Joon Kim, and Assistant Director, Elba Muñoz.

“Joon is definitely the reason why I joined the postbac,” Garcia said. “I heard him talking on a pre-PA podcast, and I was convinced I needed to look into this program. Then, throughout the program, Elba has been my rock.”

Muñoz helped her significantly with her personal statements.

“She has a way of analyzing you to best prepare you for your statements,” Garcia said. “In a simple conversation, she’s truly listening to everything you’re saying. So when it comes to the essay sections, she’ll let you know if one part doesn’t sound like you. This process has helped me to truly dig deep into why I want to go into healthcare.”

When Garcia started experiencing seizures—which she attributes to stress—Muñoz suggested that Garcia might be happier pursuing a career as an occupational therapist rather than going the physician assistant (PA) route.

“I actually started my undergrad with the idea that I was going into occupational therapy,” Garcia said. “Then I shadowed a PA, and it appealed to me. But at this point in my life, I realize it’s not exactly what I thought I wanted to do.”

Ultimately, her goal is to work with patients—which she can still do as an occupational therapist. Knowing she can pursue her dreams while minimizing her stress has relieved her.

Now, in Garcia’s second year in KGI’s MS program—where she is pursuing a concentration in Infectious Diseases—she is researching HIV as part of her thesis.

“We are informing people in the Inland Empire on all the available resources for them and trying to get as many people tested as possible,” Garcia said.

“It’s allowed me to work with communities that I feel passionate about.”

One class she particularly enjoyed was Medical Microbiology, which provides a broad overview of infectious pathogens and the diseases they cause, focusing on bacterial pathogens. For the class, students were split into groups, and each group had to give a lecture on a specific topic.

“You really had to learn the topic you were presenting on because people were going to ask questions,” Garcia said. “Also, for the exams, we could use our notes, which allowed for more challenging questions to be asked. You really had to dig deep to answer them.”

She has also enjoyed Advanced Molecular Biotechnology with Professor of Practice and MS Program Director and Professor of Practice in Translational Medicine Dr. Anastasia Levitin.

“We learned about epigenetics and how your maternal grandmother can influence your health,” Garcia said. “When your mother was in her mother’s womb, the eggs were already developing. So we are essentially carried by our grandmother as well.”

During her time at KGI, she appreciates the growth she has experienced through giving frequent presentations.

“I’ve never presented so much in my life,” Garcia said. “What I appreciate, though, is that eventually, you can give a presentation without nervousness.”

Muñoz is optimistic about Garcia’s future.

“There’s so much to say about Vanessa that makes working with her unique because she’s intelligent, bright, witty, and truly a joy to have around because she brings this sense of calmness to others too!” Muñoz said. “She truly goes out of her way to help others! I feel in my heart that Vanessa’s future patients will greatly appreciate the ease of calmness that she brings to sensitive topics. I am very excited to work with Vanessa, and I know that anyone who knows her feels lucky to know such a gentle soul.”