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Leslie Contreras Overcomes Hardship as Daughter of El Salvadoran Immigrant, Fueled by Her Passion for Community Outreach

Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) student Leslie Contreras, MS ’23, understands firsthand the value of hard work and sacrifice. Her mother immigrated to California from El Salvador in the 1980s as her home country underwent civil war. She then worked to bring the rest of her family over, including her six younger siblings.

“Each time you brought someone over, it would cost a certain amount of money because you had to pay someone to take them through the terrain,” Contreras said. “Because we’re not Mexican citizens, our family had to sneak through Mexico to cross the U.S. border and seek out asylum in the U.S.”

Thus, her mother’s efforts were focused on helping her family cross the border and hiring immigration lawyers to help release her family members from the immigration centers and bring them to her house. At any given time, as many as 10 adults were living in their family home.

Since the age of nine, Contreras has held jobs to help provide her family with basic necessities. Her first job was delivering newspapers for the LA Times, where her shift began at midnight.

Over the years, she worked in various under-the-table jobs, including doing laundry from hotels, cleaning houses, babysitting, and even construction. As the most proficient English speaker in her family, she advocated for her family in these various professions, ensuring they received fair wages.

“We were in constant survival mode,” Contreras said.

At the age of 14, Contreras obtained her first legal job at the Boys and Girls Club. This turned out to be pivotal because it brought in more money, provided herself and her brother with clothes and supplies, and ignited her passion for community outreach.

Since then, Contreras has put in thousands of hours volunteering and helping her community in many ways, including serving at the food bank, tutoring, and organizing school supply drives.

Contreras thrived throughout high school despite her many obligations, working multiple jobs, taking on leadership roles in various organizations, making straight As, and graduating as salutatorian. When she began her undergraduate education at UCLA, she found it challenging to maintain the same workload while helping her mother apply for a green card. She found that she lacked proper study skills, and her classes were much more complex than anything she’d encountered in high school.

“I didn’t even know how to think and type at the same time, so I would have to write all my essays by hand first and then type them afterward,” Contreras said. “I had to learn all these new skills, and it seemed like everyone around me had tons of AP credits and could type a mile a minute. It was a culture shock, especially being a Latin woman, low-income, and a first-generation college student.”

The COVID-19 pandemic turned out to be a blessing in disguise, reducing her work hours at Ronald Reagan Hospital and allowing her to slow down for the first time in her life. She was able to put all her energy into school, once again making straight As. During this time, she also successfully helped her mother obtain a green card.

“What’s kept me going through all of this is my love for my community,” Contreras said.

This desire to help others naturally evolved into her drive to become a physician. Her medical volunteer work includes providing Spanish translation services at local clinics and health advocacy on nutrition and diabetes management and contributing to Project Sunshine, writing motivational notes for nurses.

“I want to make sure I’m exposed to hospital work at all times because I innately love doing these things,” Contreras said. “It doesn’t feel like I’m tallying hours for my resume.”

She believes it’s important to empower people in all aspects of living and help them go from surviving to thriving, especially as someone who’s been in survival mode for a good part of her life.

Now her journey continues in KGI’s Master of Science in Applied Life Sciences (MS) program. As an Admissions Ambassador, she feels what sets KGI apart from other schools is that the emphasis is not solely on academics but on helping students develop as a whole person.

“I am very impressed with my peers,” Contreras said. “They want to make advancements in science and technology that will contribute to the world.”

Though she is only a couple of months into her first year, she has already found her knowledge of medicine expanding. Some classes that have particularly stood out are “Medical Harm Reduction” with Dr. Alan Rothfeld, “Molecular Biotechnology” with Dr. Animesh Ray, and “Pharmaceutical Discovery” with Dr. Derick Han.

“Dr. Rothfeld is amazing, and Dr. Ray must be the smartest man alive,” Contreras said. “I feel like there’s this unspoken language through his passion that helps the information reach me. It’s the same with Dr. Han—he presents the information in a way I can retain. In all my classes, the amount of knowledge I’ve retained is phenomenal.”

Contreras appreciates how Senior Director and Instructor of Postbaccalaureate Programs Dr. Joon Kim, her Professional Development Officer, has helped her clarify her goals.

“He’s so knowledgeable as well as witty and funny,” Contreras said.

She also enjoys “Clinical Biostatistics” with Dr. Nicholas Gorman and emphasizes the practical uses of math.

“I love the way he presents statistics and relates it to processes like data entry and making graphs which happen everywhere,” Contreras said. “It’s not just about numbers. There’s meaning behind all of it.”

When it comes to career goals, Contreras is leaning toward emergency medicine. What is most important to her, though, is embracing a collaborative approach to medicine.

“I’ve worked in so many different roles in the hospital, from cleaning to transporting patients, and I strongly believe in collaboration,” Contreras said. “I want to touch all cultures and go where my assistance is most needed.”

Gorman is excited to see how Contreras’s life experiences will influence her medical career.

“In class, we often talk about the stories underlying medical data, but just as important as the stories are the narrators themselves,” Gorman said. “While Leslie’s background paints an amazing story of persistence and grit, it also speaks to a unique lens she’ll bring to the medical field. This is a huge part of why representation is so important through healthcare—what unique insights will Leslie have? How will her perspective uniquely position her to solve the challenges of tomorrow?”