We recently announced the 2021 recipients of the BlueCross Power of We Scholarship, which recognizes outstanding students working to promote equity in the health care field.
This story is part of a series profiling each of this year’s six winners.
A few years ago, Sierra Cruz attended a medical conference at the University of Louisville. She expected to hear and learn from leaders in her field. But she never expected to be inspired to the point of changing her life.
“I had never seen an all-Black panel of medical professionals,” Sierra recalls. “Growing up in Wisconsin, I was one of four minorities in a class of 2,000 students. Hearing from Black women who were already physicians was the biggest motivator in the world to me. These women were real with us. They told us their stories and they said, ‘This is where I came from, but this is not where you have to go. You can change the whole narrative.’”
That sense of power was transformative. As a first-generation college student, Sierra knows what it’s like to forge a path not just for herself but for her whole family. It’s a privilege, but one that comes with a lot of pressure.
“It’s not just my parents who didn’t go to college; it’s my grandparents and their parents,” she says. “I wanted to be a nurse because my mom’s a nurse, and I knew there was an added financial burden when you go from nurse to doctor, on top of the financial struggles I already have just paying for tuition. But hearing the stories of these powerful Black women — the obstacles they had to go through but all they still accomplished — that made me believe I can do it. And I’m going to do it.”
Setting her goals
After Sierra completes her undergraduate degree, she plans to go to medical school, preferably in Tennessee to be close to her family. She’s leaning toward becoming a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) rather than an MD, in part because of her experiences over the past few years.
“COVID brought these challenges to light, but there’s this feeling that health care is foreign and money-motivated. I want to change that narrative. I want to give those people someone who they feel like they can trust, who’s curious about what they’re saying, and who can give them real knowledge and power.”
Sierra’s double-major in biology and psychology will help with that, as will her leadership role in the Minority Association of Pre-Medical Students (MAPS), where she has been connecting with other minorities in the medical field on campus for years. She volunteers with the Salvation Army, helping run drug take-back events, and every October she helps run their pumpkin patch, which raises money for children who are battling cancer.
Some extra help
Sierra does all of this along with her schoolwork — which has earned her admission to Gamma Beta Phi, Omicron Delta Kappa and Lambda Sigma honor societies — and multiple virtual internships. One, the Summer Health Professions Education Program (SHPEP) through the University of Alabama at Birmingham, allows her to watch surgeries, dive deeper into biochemistry, meet with physicians and discuss it all with other students from around the country. Another, through the University of Minnesota, is being completed in coordination with a team in Madrid, Spain, that’s studying women in neuroscience. It’s an exciting time of exploration, but one that has always had an undercurrent of concern.
“Every year, I worry, ‘How is tuition going to get paid? ” Sierra says. “I also worry about things that are bigger than tuition, like MCAT materials, paying for the exam, and then paying for food and life.”
Last year, when Sierra found out that the deadline for the BlueCross Power of We Scholarship had been extended, it felt like her time. For weeks, Sierra put her all into her application, and she didn’t tell anyone she’d applied. Each time she made it to the next round, she was in shock. Then, she was announced as a recipient.
“I just started crying,” she says. “Being a first-generation student, you miss out on a lot. You lose friends, and you see everyone living life while you’re at home studying. Getting this scholarship was proof that it pays off. It was more reassurance that I can really do this. I can really get to medical school, and this can really happen for me and my family.
“Now more than ever I know: This is what I want to do, and this is what I’m meant to do. And this is how I’m going to make it happen.”
About the BlueCross Power of We Scholarship
- Each year, the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation awards $10,000 scholarships to minority students pursuing degrees in health care.
- Recipients are chosen in collaboration with the National Association of Health Services Executives (NAHSE) – Memphis Chapter.
- The goal of these scholarships is to help reduce health disparities by improving diversity in the state’s health care workforce and combating systemic racism and injustice.
- Since 2013, the foundation has awarded $285,000 to students leading the charge.
- This year, the BlueCross Foundation awarded 6 scholarships to students across the state.
For more information, see BCBSTnews.com/scholarship.