Chloé Gonzalez left Brooklyn, N.Y., four years ago to begin working toward her dream of becoming a doctor.
While the road hasn’t always been easy, Gonzalez will complete the first leg of that journey May 10, when she graduates from Claflin University with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry.
When Gonzalez walks across the stage that Saturday morning at the Seventh-day Adventist Worship and Convention Center in Orangeburg, she will become just the second person in her family to receive a college degree.
The first to receive a college education was an aunt in New York, who went back to school so that her two young sons would have no excuse when they were encouraged to continue their education, Gonzalez said.
“The last time my parents were here was when they dropped me off four years ago, and now they’re coming back to see me graduate,” the 21-year-old said. “I am very excited.”
Gonzalez always knew she wanted to go to college, but that life goal caused some concern for her father, who didn’t want her to be weighed down by debt from pursing a degree.
“My dad graduated from high school and my mom got her GED, and money has always been an issue for us,” she said of growing up in her lower-income minority family. “When I was starting to apply to schools, my dad told me that unless I got a scholarship, I would not be able to go to college. I told him, ‘I’m going to college no matter what. … College is an investment. I know where I want to go and I know what I’ve got to do to get there, so I’m going to go.’”
Family friend and Claflin University alumna Dr. Michelle McGill offered to pay for Gonzalez’s application fee if she applied to Claflin.
“I had never heard of Claflin,” Gonzalez said. “I applied, and was accepted to the (Alice Carson Tisdale) Honors College. That was a full ride. So my parents were like, ‘You’re going to Claflin.’”
Leaving her parents – Jeanette Arizmendi and Manuel Gonzalez – and the rest of her close-knit Puerto Rican family behind in Brooklyn was hard, but Gonzalez knew she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to receive a free education.
“It’s been difficult, but it has been a great learning experience,” she said. “And I love it.”
Originally a biology major when she entered, Gonzalez switched to biochemistry after discovering a love of chemistry.
“Biochemistry was the best of both worlds,” she said. “It’s a struggle, every single day, but I love it. Anything worth having is something worth fighting for.”
Gonzalez passes along her love of science through her participation in the American Chemical Society. Last year, she was vice president of the Claflin chapter. This year, she served as the group’s president.
“I’ve done peer tutoring in the sciences, and we’ve done community service at Felton Laboratory School to promote science to children,” Gonzalez said. “A lot of people like science, but they’re kind of scared because they find it intimidating. But it doesn’t have to be. Science can be fun, and that’s our whole mission, to promote science to everybody.”
In the fall, Gonzalez will attend Drexel University in Philadelphia, Penn., to join the school’s medical post-baccalaureate program.
Gonzalez said while she was accepted to a graduate program to receive a master’s degree in public health, she’s following her dream of going to medical school and one day become a pediatric oncologist.
“I’m one step closer to medical school,” she said. “Through the program, I’ll get MCAT prep and take graduate-level courses in sciences. It’s going to give me that little edge I need.
“I’m getting one step closer to where I want to be.”
Gonzalez said she’s always wanted to be a pediatrician, but it was after an internship shadowing a pediatric hematologist/oncologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center that she decided to focus on that particular field.
“Children deserve the best of everything, and I want to be able to give them what they deserve,” she said. During her internship, “I met the most amazing children. They are far more mature than people my age. They’ve been through so much, and they appreciate life so much more. I feel like we take life for granted.
“It’s the fight to keep them going, the fight to keep them alive. I just want to be a part of that support that they need.”
She also hopes to one day become a role model and advocate for minorities – particularly Hispanics – entering the medical profession.
“I also want to do Doctors Without Borders for a year,” she said. “I’m all about community service, especially given where I come from, and knowing how hard it is for minorities to actually make it and knowing the health disparities that occur in the minority population. My goal is to help those minority children.”
Gonzalez’s drive and decision to attend college has made an impact on her siblings – she has an older brother who was unable to complete college after the birth of his daughter, as well as three younger brothers and a younger sister.
“My sister, she’s following in my footsteps. She is a freshman at the Culinary Institute of America,” Gonzalez said. “One of my younger brothers says, ‘I want to go to college. I want to be just like you.’
“I tell them, ‘You can do whatever you want to do. As long as you want it, go for it. Make no excuses.’”
Gonzalez has worked hard while at Claflin University, and said she is only now really enjoying her success. She will graduate on May 10 with honors, and is also a member of Alpha Kappa Mu National Honor Society.
“I love my experience here. I feel like I’ve gained so much,” she said. “Throughout my entire time here, it’s been mainly work, work, work, but now that I’m a senior, I can sit back and see that I’ve accomplished so much.
“It feels good to realize all that I’ve done, and all that I’m hoping to do. But I have a lot more I’ve got to do. I’m not going to stop until I’m the first doctor in the family.”