By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
HAVANA, Cuba — At age 10, Briana Roberts set a career goal and wouldn’t be swayed from it.
“My pediatrician was Nicaraguan and had kind of an elderly grandma feel, but was so good at being a doctor,” shared Roberts, now 34. “I said, ‘I want to be like that. I want to learn to help people.’ From that age forward I was always focused on the sciences. In middle school, high school and college, I was just trying to focus on what I needed to learn to get to my goal.”
Two decades later, the dream she wouldn’t let go has led her 1,400 miles from home to Cuba, where she’s a first-year medical student in a program that provides free tuition and the opportunity to serve patients in a country that offers access to free, quality health care to even its poorest citizens.
Roberts left her native San Antonio with the knowledge that it would be a roundtrip.
Students accepted into the program are asked to return to work in underserved communities upon graduation.
The Latin American School of Medicine, or Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicinal (ELAM), is a six-year, full-scholarship program. Tuition, room and board are free, and a small stipend is provided for students. Participants spend the first two years at the ELAM campus 22 miles west of Havana. The remaining four years, including a one-year internship, are spent at one of 21 medical schools around the country.
Before moving to Cuba, Roberts earned degrees in biology and psychology from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. She applied for medical school in the United States fresh out of college, but didn’t get in.
“My (Medical College Admission Test) score wasn’t high enough,” Roberts said of the mandatory test for admission in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean. “So there was a buffer of time when I had the choice to either retake the MCAT or go study abroad.”
She chose the latter and went to Madrid, where she received a master’s in bilingual and multicultural education. The experience included learning Spanish, a skill she knew would come in handy wherever her academic and career paths led.
“I decided to do that for two years, but I never stopped thinking about medicine,” she said. “I came back exploring other areas of medicine that I thought maybe I should do instead of being a doctor like speech therapy, audiology, podiatry. None of those were really fulfilling me in the way that I now know.”
Roberts also attended Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa, and received another master’s, this one in organizational leadership. She applied for medical school again and once again, it didn’t look like it would happen for her. The school she applied to said it never received her MCAT scores and that’s why she hadn’t heard back from them.
She got a call that would change everything. It was from a pastor she knew who was passionate about Cuba and its late revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro. The pastor was involved with the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO) and encouraged her to apply to the ELAM program. Roberts researched the scholarship and learned it sought to reach “people of color who are less fortunate than others who are studying medicine.”
It sounded perfect – only the deadline to apply had passed. And Roberts had passed the cutoff age eight years prior. Not to be deferred from her dream any longer, she obtained special permission to enroll and was selected. She still had to wait a year due to the global coronavirus pandemic.
Roberts also met former Sacramento public health advocate Kathryn Hall-Trujillo through IFCO. Hall-Trujillo, the founder of the internationally recognized Birthing Project USA, serves as administrator of the U.S./Cuba Medical School Scholarship Program. Hall-Trujillo also spearheads an 80-hour immersion course on Cuba public health for American service providers, administrators and students. She’s revered by Roberts and the other students who refer to her affectionately as “Mama Kat.” She takes the medical students under her wing, doling out words of wisdom about the work ahead and bringing them snacks from her many travels – mostly treats from back home that they can’t get in Cuba because of the embargo.
Program recruiter Arnold Trujillo, Hall-Trujillo’s husband, said it’s hard to enlist students because of Cuba’s bad reputation in America. The students get excited, he said, then their parents and advisers say no. The couple is working to change perceptions of the island nation – and its people.
Roberts’ family initially feared for her safety and well-being and didn’t want her to travel to Cuba.
“When I got here, that was all wrong. It was the exact opposite,” she said.
Hall-Trujillo, who also serves as an ambassador for the Federation of International Gender and Human Rights, said the students are ambassadors in their own right.
The unique opportunity is not lost on Roberts.
“What I’m learning here is how to be able to still be a doctor and function without having to rely on resources,” she said. (I’m learning) certain life skills, a way of thinking outside the box, outside the system, to still be able to do my job.”
Attending medical school in Cuba and working community clinics on Havana’s outskirts has changed Roberts’ idea of what medicine and health care is and all it can be. She has also solidified her place in it.
“That really expanded on my perspective on how to think more holistically, which complements that I had already started believing in myself and how medicine reaches people in every way: psychological, biologically, emotionally – all these components.”
Black doctors often don’t go back to the communities that raised them and need them. That the program specifically seeks to address this, Roberts said, was a plus.
“The thing that attracted me most about this fellowship was this promise of why this even exists, which is to learn to be a doctor and go back to communities. My goal is to go back and serve because there’s a huge need for primary doctors.”
She plans to address the issue of minorities and nutrition and improve health outcomes in underserved areas.
“My goal is to go back and essentially fulfill this promise,” she said, before correcting herself a bit. “It’s not necessarily a promise, but like this honor code of bringing it back and being revolutionary in the way I practice medicine.”