For Maria Pastrana Lopez, her dream of becoming a doctor and saving lives seemed impossible until she came to the U.S. as an international student.
Living in South America, especially Colombia, can be challenging for those who want to pursue higher education, Pastrana Lopez explained. Private universities can cost more than 10 times the minimum monthly salary, she said, and public universities have low admissions.
Pastrana Lopez grew up with her mother working in a hospital. Watching health care professionals save patient lives, Pastrana Lopez found inspiration at a young age.
Five years ago, Pastrana Lopez’s aunt offered her the first step toward that dream – a sponsorship to study in the U.S.
“Without hesitating, I said ‘yes.’ It was the opportunity of my life,” she said.
Pastrana Lopez already spoke basic English but felt nervous about the daunting task of applying for her student visa, completing high school and applying to higher education, all the while trying to learn a second language proficiently.
In order to enter the U.S. legally, Pastrana Lopez had to demonstrate that she was able to qualify for a student visa and present it to immigration.
“Going through the process of obtaining my student visa was very challenging, especially when having to be in front of an immigration officer asking questions,” she said.
Once Pastrana Lopez came to the U.S., she faced additional requirements for GPA and credits in order to maintain the status of an international student or risk losing it.
Following high school graduation two years ago, Pastrana Lopez applied to Salt Lake Community College and is majoring in pre-health sciences.
Despite a local family sponsorship, Pastrana Lopez needed help to fund a college education and so she started working for SLCC’s International Student Services.
Working for International Student Services, Pastrana Lopez received help in two ways – she collected tools that helped her develop in her career and stayed up-to-date on information regarding immigration and student visas.
“Maria was very proficient,” said Venita Ross, international student admissions advisor. “She gained experience and adapted very well to the system.”
SLCC’s International Student Services help international students adapt to the new education system, which can be significantly different from their native country.
The department’s advisors offer student orientations on what to expect and develop interactive groups. Advisors also invite students to participate in and join different clubs that are on campus so that they may feel closer to the college.
“Get involved on-campus and in community service,” Ross advised. “It helps [students] connect and get in network with people.”
A difficult aspect for international students is the forced distance from family. Pastrana Lopez first came to the U.S. alone as a teenager. Her mother and brother have since immigrated in the last few years, but the rest of her family still live in Colombia.
The separation forced her not only to grow and become who she is now, but also to get out of her comfort zone, study and work for her dreams.
“Having to let her go and not being able to be there to be her support was the hardest part,” said Claudia Lopez Gomez, Maria’s mother.
Living in the U.S. has been a culture shock for Pastrana Lopez. Back home in Colombia, people hug, kiss and show affection to each other often, which is something that Pastrana Lopez does not see as much in the U.S.
“People in Colombia are more caring,” she described. “If you want to be in the U.S. you can’t be weak.”
Though Pastrana Lopez’s initial dream was to be a doctor, she decided to pursue a career in pharmacy and plans to start working toward her bachelor’s degree at the University of Utah following SLCC graduation in the fall.
“I wasn’t sure if I could make it, but in the end – if you do it with effort – anything is possible,” she said. “Just have to put in time and dedication.”