In high school, she decided to run a marathon the day before it happened. Her formal training? Some pasta the night before.
And that’s not the first time she found a challenge to overcome.
Alejandra Bahena (C ‘22) spent her childhood in Mexico City. At the age of 12, her mother moved her and her sisters to Kissimmee, Fla., a place “only known for Disney and whatnot,” Alejandra shrugs. But it makes perfect sense that she lives next door to the so–called happiest place on earth—it seems like her personality revolves around positivity.
“When we got to the United States, we were really starting the American Dream with nothing,” she says. Her family immigrated with no money, struggling to find housing. Coming from a low–income, Latino community of color springboarded her into her passions today, such as increasing diversity in medicine.
Alejandra is a pre–med student majoring in biochemistry, with minors in French and chemistry, and she wants to use her trilingual abilities to break down the language barriers in health care. “We deal with people from all over the world who come here in search of better opportunities, and I think it’s really special for physicians and other types of health care providers to be able to communicate with them in their native languages,” Alejandra says. “It makes their whole experience feel less stressful and more welcoming.”
Like those who experience difficulty communicating within the American health care system, Alejandra understands what it’s like to enter uncharted territory.
When she first got to campus, Alejandra felt intimidated. A QuestBridge scholar, she lacked the family guidance that she felt that most of her peers had. “I wasn’t too aware of what it took to get into college,” she says. She was excited when she first matched with Penn, but struggled to find her community once she started school. The financial burden overwhelmed her, and the academic rigor wasn’t familiar either. “In Mexico and Florida, there was of course a huge Latinx population, so coming here and seeing people from all over the world was really awesome,” she says. “But I also sometimes felt like it was hard to find my community.”
Then she joined the Johnson Scholars program, and everything changed. All at once Alejandra was surrounded by an abundance of peers, guides, and clinical opportunities within the Perelman School of Medicine. During her sophomore year, when Alejandra was particularly struggling at Penn, her mentors from the program acted as her support system. Finally, she felt that she had a place for her on campus. “They really shaped my time here and made me feel that I belonged and that I could do it,” she says. Gone were the days of not having a community to rely on. Inspired, she took on leadership roles in Latinx organizations, like MEChA de Penn and Lanzando Líderes. It was time to give back.
Her journey toward making the field of medicine more accessible to everyone didn’t stop there. Two years ago, Alejandra founded the National Pre–Health Community (NPHC), a nonprofit dedicated to helping students from underrepresented backgrounds pursue careers in health care.
It was a daunting endeavor.
“When it first started, we didn’t know how big it would become or how much support we would receive,” she says. She didn’t have much experience in running an organization of that kind, but soon realized that she could seek out the resources she needed. With support from a litany of organizations, including the Johnson Scholars program, Kaplan, and the American Physician Scientists Association, NPHC has grown into a group of over 2,000 students. Over time, it has provided over $3,500 in test prep aid to students in need.
This August marks the third annual NPHC conference, a completely free and virtual three–day event for anyone interested in joining the medical field. Alejandra and her team meticulously constructed the perfect curriculum to emphasize the topics most important to attendees, starting with talks on the first day from professionals in different areas of medicine. “Seeing how willing physicians were to contribute to this goal and make it big was amazing,” Alejandra says. Over the next two days, members work on medical school applications and engage in equity and inclusion workshops. As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child—and NPHC is definitely Alejandra’s child. “I’d say it’s the thing I’m most proud of from my time here,” she says.
As the story of her life goes, Alejandra used that momentum to keep conquering anything standing in her way, all the way to the Penn Digital Neuropathology Lab. She joined the lab after her first year upon discovering her fascination with brain behavior. “[The Lab's] big goal is to be able to diagnose neurological disorders better,” she explains. Next year, Alejandra will be staying in Philly to juggle her lab work with studying for the MCAT and applying to medical school. “Joining the lab full time is a great opportunity for me because I already have a lot of experience there from the digital aspect [of the research],” she says.
The lab has grown to become a place Alejandra calls home. Her smile lights up as she excitedly anticipates experiencing the “wet–lab side of things.” Brain slabbing, processing, and staining are all terms that go over any non–STEM major’s head, but they’re music to Alejandra’s ears. “We have access to actual post–mortem brain tissue, so it’s a very rare and valuable honor,” she says. Like a kid in a candy shop, she says, “It’s just so exciting to learn about the brain and different diseases within it.”
To Alejandra, life is also about having a good time. She tells me that her worst habit is how often she takes Panera by storm. “I have the coffee subscription, but I always end up buying food, too. I’m really falling into the marketing trap there,” she laughs. She rightfully prides herself on it.
“I think people would describe me as spontaneous,” she says. When she was in Florida one time, she decided to go skydiving—and she only realized what she signed up for a few hours later. “It only hit me once I was on the plane, like, ‘I’m literally jumping off right now,’” she jokes. Saying no to something clearly doesn’t come easily to Alejandra.
What’s most inspiring about her, beyond just the fact that she jumped out of a plane, is that surrender is never an option. “Sometimes stuff won’t work out for you, but life is about moving forward,” Alejandra says. She admits that it sounds cliche, but reminds me that everyone has their own journey. At the end of the day, it’s important to stay focused on your goals. “People don’t actually care about your internship or how much you’re getting paid. Everyone’s going to graduate and do their own thing, so do whatever feels right for you here,” she tells me. Grab life by the horns, and then use what you’ve learned to help others overcome similar challenges.
“If I were to say my life had a theme, it would be resilience,” she says. And she attributes it all to her family in both Mexico and America. “I could not have done this without them,” she says. Her heritage comes hand in hand with her dream to help others. Coming from an underrepresented background pushed her to craft her own path—and help others craft theirs. Especially after working so hard to increase diversity in the medical field, a profession often blocked off to those from lower–income families, Alejandra has come to know that there’s nothing more important than following your passions. Successfully overcoming her challenges once she got to Penn’s campus only inspired her to share that drive with those around her. When it doesn’t seem like there’s a space for you, you can make the space.
However elusive the feeling may be, Alejandra wants you to know that you’re here for a reason. So be bold. Take that class. Spend more time outside. Venture off campus with your friends. “Even get some food that’s not Distrito or Panera,” she laughs.
As Alejandra now finds herself wrapping up her career as a college student, she knows there’s so much more out there just waiting for her. And whether it’s processing brain tissue ten months from now or running another marathon tomorrow, there’s no doubt she’ll be ready for it.