Giving Back to the Bronx

Julissa De La Cruz: A Bronx Tale of Connecting with Community

When second-year medical student Julissa De La Cruz was growing up in the Bronx, her mother would sit in their living room after she got off work to study for community college classes.

Julissa De La Cruz
“I remember how she took my colored pencils and drew cells for biology class. I didn’t know they were cells at the time, but she was drawing little bricks and squiggly circles with dots in them,” Julissa recalled. “That image stays with me, even today.”

Now, Julissa is hoping to make a similar impact on others, starting with her own daughter, 6-year-old Juliet. A few years ago when Julissa was studying for the MCATs, Juliet started drawing as well. “She saw me drawing molecules for organic chemistry and started drawing ketones [an organic compound]. She said, ‘Mommy, look, just like you.’"

A Lifelong Dream

While Julissa’s path to medical school has been anything but straightforward, her motivation remains unchanged. She is determined to help the borough she grew up in become a better place—not only as a doctor in the Bronx, but by showing her daughter and other Bronx youngsters that if she can do it, they can too.

Though Julissa was born and raised in the Bronx, her parents emigrated from the Dominican Republic and spoke no English, so she didn’t learn English until she was 6.

“Because of the language barrier, I had to teach myself,” she said. “That helped me become independent at a young age—doing homework on my own, learning English by myself and even watching TV so I could get the accent right to avoid being teased at school.”

Julissa with Juan Robles, M.D. ’11
Julissa with Juan Robles, M.D. ’11
At age 7, she became the family translator. “I’d fill out our food stamp and Medicaid applications,” she said. And she translated for her parents during doctor visits. “At home, they would ask me questions and I’d look up the answers in books,” she said.

She joked, “I’ve been diagnosing them since middle school. They always told me ’you are going to be a doctor, you are going to go far.’”

A Long, Difficult Path

Julissa wanted to be a doctor from an early age, but she doubted herself despite excelling at school. After graduating high school, she studied for a year at the University of Miami as an international relations major, and then briefly attended New York University before leaving to work full-time. She was a bartender, a restaurant hostess and a sales clerk in a jewelry store.

She eventually made her way to Lehman College, graduating as valedictorian of its pre-health department, and scoring in the 94th percentile on the MCAT—all while raising Juliet, who was born before she started at Lehman.

Medical school is hard by itself; Julissa entered as a single mom, when Juliet was five.

“I think she’s very gutsy,” said Dr. Mary Kelly, academic counselor in Einstein’s office of academic support and counseling. “Medical school offers a fast and furious pace of learning and requires total dedication. Remarkably, Julissa is managing a whole slew of things that other students don’t have to worry about—and she’s doing it beautifully.”

Seeking to Help Others

While at Lehman, Julissa met fellow Bronxite Dr. Juan Robles, an Einstein alumnus who is now assistant professor in family and social medicine at Einstein and an attending in family and social medicine at Montefiore. She accepted his invitation to volunteer at a weight-loss program he had started at Montefiore’s Family Health Center—the same center where she’d received her prenatal care. Before long, Julissa was recruiting her friends at Lehman to volunteer at the program, too.

The idea snowballed. Following her first year at Einstein, inspired by her mentor, Julissa co-founded Bronx Community Health Leaders (BxCHL). The program allows Bronx students over the age of 18 to gain volunteer experience at a hospital while supporting one another in school. The group currently consists of 40 young Bronxites who are interested in pursuing careers in medicine.

Julissa De La Cruz and her daughter, Juliet
Julissa De La Cruz and her daughter, Juliet
The program fits well with Julissa’s ultimate goal to help the Bronx. She explained, “Becoming a doctor is not about making it out of my community, it’s about giving back and making a difference.”

A Special Connection

The same dedication to the Bronx also drives Dr. Robles, who grew up in the South Bronx after coming to the United States at age 13 from Honduras, and even attended the same middle school as Julissa. Like Julissa, he learned English once he was in school in the Bronx.

He sees himself in his mentee. “We have similar stories, and I think there’s a reason that we found each other,” he said. “She’s the first person I’ve met whose experiences reflect the journey and the struggle of someone from the Bronx, like me, who wanted to pursue a career in medicine.”

Likewise, Julissa sees others in BxCHL who share this ambition.

“I’m like their older sister,” she said. “I want to support their journey and provide some guidance, because they can do this too.”

By her own example, she also hopes to instill her daughter with similar confidence for pursuing her dreams: “She’s like I was at that age, and I want her to know that anything she chooses to achieve is possible.”

Posted on: Monday, December 19, 2016