For two students in medical school, Marco Santos Teles and Isabel Silva seem remarkably calm.
Maybe this married couple – both Valencia College and UCF graduates now attending medical school at Rutgers University in New Jersey – does not rattle easily because they study together, bounce ideas off one another and calm each other’s nerves.
“The first semester required us to adapt,” says Marco. “It’s not that the content is so difficult; it’s the quantity. You’re expected to learn a lot in a shorter period of time. But UCF and Valencia did prepare us pretty well.”
“People try to scare you” by talking about how hard the first year of medical school is,” adds Isabel. “I had in my mind that it would be miserable, studying all the time.”
But their journey to medical school is a tale of three countries, two teenagers, and one overarching goal.
Both immigrants who moved to this country as teenagers, Marco and Isabel faced many of the same hurdles – learning English, fitting in, and worrying about how to pay for college. Marco grew up in Brazil, but his family moved to Celebration, Fla., when he was 14. There, at Celebration High School, he found a group of friends quickly. “I think it took a year and a half for me to understand English. It was good to be in an area with a lot of Brazilian immigrants, because you don’t know the language and you’re in high school.” After high school, he enrolled at Valencia College, where he landed a Bridges to Success scholarship. The scholarship was a blessing because he was still considered an international student – and could not afford the tuition.
Isabel, meanwhile, moved to Orlando in the spring of her senior year in high school – and immediately began trying to fulfill all the requirements to graduate. She loaded up on coursework not offered in her home country of Venezuela — U.S. history, U.S. government, economics. And though she arrived in February, she took the SAT in March.
By the time Isabel took the SAT, however, most colleges and universities had already closed their application process. At Olympia High School, one high school guidance counselor told Isabel that she’d have to wait another year to start college. Just when she was beginning to believe she’d have to sit out a year, another counselor suggested she try Valencia College.
At Valencia, Isabel was not only accepted, she was admitted to Valencia’s Seneff Honors College, which paid for her tuition.
A meeting of the minds
At Valencia, their paths didn’t cross immediately. Isabel took most of her classes at West Campus; Marco spent most of his time on East Campus, where he focused on the undergraduate research program. But they happened to be enrolled in an honors psychology class together in the spring. After that class, they chatted regularly for nearly a year before Marco mustered the courage to ask Isabel out on a date.
And when they did begin dating, they realized that they both had a common goal: Each wanted to go to medical school.
“Even as a child, when I started taking science classes and learning about the human body, I was really interested,” says Isabel. “Any time somebody would get hurt, I would take them to the nurse’s office. If someone had a headache, I would make sure they were feeling better.”
Isabel also had some family members in the medical field. “I do have women in my family who are doctors, so that made me believe it was possible,” she says.
Marco, however, had no family role models in the medical profession. “I’ll be the first; I can brag about that,“ he says, laughing.
But like Isabel, he was keenly interested in science. At Valencia, he signed up for the honors undergraduate research track – dreaming of one day working in a lab, doing medical research.
“I’m big on science, big on research, I love the idea of going to a lab,” Marco says. “But then I wanted something where I could help people more directly. I felt like in a lab I wouldn’t get to do that. So I shifted my passion for science into helping people. And listen to them… that’s what made me realize I want to be a doctor.”
After graduating from Valencia, the two transferred to the University of Central Florida. They got married while at UCF, when Isabel was 20 and Marco was 21.
Mapping two paths to medical school
During their senior year at UCF, they began applying to medical schools. They hoped to stay together – or even be in the same region – but there were no guarantees.
“When we got married, we talked about the possibility of being apart for medical school, but we were ready to take that risk,” says Marco. “There are no couples program. You’re an individual. And we knew the odds: If you apply to 30 schools, you’re lucky if you get two or three acceptances.”
“It was scary,” adds Isabel. “It’s hard enough to get accepted into one school, let alone both of us.”
So they came up with a plan. Using a map, they began targeting regions of the United States with a number of medical schools. They applied to medical schools that were near one another, so they could be close to one another. They also applied to UCF’s medical school.
“When we started the application cycle, we were very hopeful,” says Marco. “At the end of the cycle, we were accepting the idea that I would be in New York City, and she would be at home, at UCF.”
They applied to 24 medical schools. She got eight interviews; Marco got five.
He was accepted to New York Medical College and SUNY Upstate. Isabel had already been accepted to UCF’s College of Medicine.
“Worst case scenario, if we had to go to different schools, I would have gone to UCF and stayed at home,” says Isabel.
But when Rutgers New Jersey Medical School accepted both of them, they were elated. They’re the only married couple in the medical school, but it has been an advantage. They can be together and support one another. And, on weekends, they visit New York City for fun.
Now, as they begin their second year of medical school, they’re thinking about their specialties. Isabel is fascinated by plastic surgery and wants to work with children born with cleft palates. Marco, who once wanted to go into medical research had been considering a career in oncology, the treatment of cancer. His decision was cemented last year, when he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. “That changed things,” he says, and he is focusing on becoming an oncologist.
“It’s a very broad field, but very exciting — focusing on medical therapies, immunotherapy, targeted therapies.” And, as medical oncologist, he would be the quarterback of his patients’ treatments — the primary care doctor for patients who have cancer.
Looking back, they’re grateful for the education they received at Valencia College and at UCF. While UCF prepared them for their journey, Valencia helped them launch their college careers – and provided them with relationships that would matter.
“Bridges to Success was a super important thing from Valencia that helped me,” says Marco. “Bridges has a very structured program. They have you take a certain number of classes, you have to attend seminars, volunteer hours — that helped me with time management.
“And then on top of that, the advisors were great. Each Bridges student had an advisor they could rely on if they had any trouble.”
Isabel, meanwhile, is grateful for the small class sizes at Valencia. “I took a lot of honors classes, so they were even smaller than the normal sized classes at Valencia,” she says.
Marco adds that, while he learned a lot at UCF, the relationships they developed at Valencia paid off when they began applying to medical schools. “I think one thing that I appreciated at Valencia is that you were able to talk to the professors a lot, interact more,” he says. “When it came time to apply to medical school, most of my letters came from Valencia professors. That’s the advantage at Valencia.”