It started with a spreadsheet drawn up by three undocumented students. They titled it “We Are Going to Med School.” Today, the organization born from that page, Pre-Health Dreamers (PHD), has 700 members in 42 states.
Jirayut “New” Latthivongskorn, who just completed his third year at UCSF’s School of Medicine and is the first undocumented student in the school’s history, is one of PHD’s three co-founders. (The others are Angel Ku, a PhD student at UCSF, and Denisse Rojas Marquez, the first undocumented student at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.) Their goal was to create a community, serve as a resource, and advocate for other undocumented students hoping to pursue careers in health or science.
When Latthivongskorn speaks, it’s hard to imagine him as a 9-year-old immigrant from Thailand who was uncomfortable talking to his American classmates. Today, he is an eloquent and confident spokesperson for the rights of immigrants and the undocumented.
To be sure, he’s had plenty of chance to develop skills and poise. Since his undergrad years at UC Berkeley, he’s helped advance immigrant rights through ASPIRE (Asian Students Promoting Immigrant Rights through Education, the nation’s first pan-Asian undocumented immigrant-led organization), Educators for Fair Consideration, and PHD.
In California, he’s lobbied for granting in-state tuition to undocumented students, for limiting local law enforcement collaboration with federal immigration actions via the TRUST Act, and for allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain professional licenses and to access loan forgiveness programs. He also partnered with the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) to expand its fee assistance program to students in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
Currently, as a member of University of California President Janet Napolitano’s Advisory Council on Undocumented Students, Latthivongskorn has been working to improve support services, create financial aid programs that are not tied to federal funds, and pass UC-sponsored legislation to remove legal and financial barriers faced by undocumented students.
“I’m still the only undocumented student in medical school at UCSF,” he says. “My hope is that medical schools will begin actively recruiting people like me – that they’ll go beyond merely saying that they will consider your application and say instead, ‘We want to make your education here a reality.’”
Both the Wall Street Journal and the Atlantic have written about Latthivongskorn’s journey, and Forbes magazine selected him as one of its “30 Under 30” most influential people in the country. In April, the U.S. Public Health Service awarded him its 2017 Excellence in Public Health Award, a national honor given to medical students who help “protect, promote, and advance the health and safety of our Nation.”
Latthivongskorn is quick to point out that his accomplishments have been possible only because of the sacrifices of his family and the tireless work of many organizations and individuals. It is their stories that he would like to help spread.
“We’re at a point where a lot of undocumented students are getting into graduate and professional programs, which is an amazing, beautiful thing,” he says. “We’re no longer talking about five students across the country. We're talking about hundreds of students, at many different universities."