A long journey to medical school for UF student

After graduating high school in 1999 and spending a year in Cuba’s mandatory military service, Leo Pena didn’t do anything for two years. No work. No school. It was too risky.

First-year medical student Leo Pena holds a photo of himself taken in his homeland, Cuba. Photo by Sarah Kiewel

First-year medical student Leo Pena holds a photo of himself taken in his homeland, Cuba. Photo by Sarah Kiewel

“With the Cuban government, you have to play it really safe,” says Pena, a UF medical student who was held in his native Cuba for three years after his family won U.S. visas through the Department of State’s visa lottery program. “I ended up wasting three years doing nothing.”

Even worse, his mother, father and sister were already in the United States living in Miami. Only Pena was held back, and there was nothing he could do but wait.

“It was stressful,” he says. “You know you have no control. They could hold me there for years.”

But in 2002, Pena boarded a plane bound for Miami. Thirty-five minutes later he was in the United States. It felt more like riding an elevator than a plane.

“I was like, that’s it? That’s how far I have been? Thirty-five minutes?” Pena says, shaking his head.

As happy as he was to be back with his family and in the United States, pursuing an education in a new country created its own set of challenges. Most schools wouldn’t accept him without a permanent resident card, and one of the institutions that did take him wanted him to enroll in English as a second language classes. But his English was fine. Finally, he enrolled at Broward Community College and then at Florida Atlantic University, driving 100 miles each day to get to class.

The second hurdle? He wanted to be a doctor, but without his permanent resident card, he wouldn’t be able to enter medical school. So he majored in math. And forget student loans. Without a permanent resident card, he couldn’t borrow money either. With some help from his father, he paid for everything up front.

“I lost hope,” he says. “I was going to be an actuary.”

When he finally received his permanent resident card, he switched gears and began taking prerequisites for medical school.

Now a second-year medical student, Pena became a U.S. citizen in October in a ceremony with 1,200 people in Miami. Half of the new citizens were Cubans.

“I wanted to vote, but I missed (the deadline) by a week and a half,” Pena says. “I’ll vote next time.”