Countdown to Graduation: Liliana Bustamante travels far to become a doctor

Fourth-year medical student Liliana Bustamante knew she wanted to be a doctor, even as a child in Colombia, South America.

But when her family emigrated to South Florida when she was 16, she struggled to speak English and wasn’t even sure how to apply to medical school in the U.S.

“In Colombia, you go from high school to medical school – it’s longer and you just go straight,” she said.

But after two years at Broward Community College, Bustamante transferred to UF and stayed for medical school.

UF COM fourth-year medical student Liliana Bustamante. Photo by Maria Belen Farias

Both of her grandmothers plan to make the trip from Colombia to see her graduate from the UF College of Medicine May 14. She is the first person in her family to go into medicine, and she matched to her top residency choice – the University of North Carolina in internal medicine with plans for a fellowship in hematology/oncology. She eventually would like to return to academia to teach and potentially return to Florida.

But it hasn’t always been an easy road.

Bustamante’s parents decided to move to the U.S. with their two teenage children when the political situation became more unstable in Colombia. Her father, who was an engineer, and her mother, who was a hospital social worker, thought the U.S. would be safer and offer more opportunities.

Moving to Pembroke Pines, her parents couldn’t legally work the first six months and the family had to live off savings. Bustamante read and wrote English well and excelled in math, so she succeeded in her new school. But socially it was difficult because she struggled to speak English well. Her parents also had difficulty with the language, and they had to work long hours.

Her family stuck together, though, and got through it. In fact, her younger brother, who is now an undergraduate student at UF, also plans to become a doctor.

The U.S. feels like home now and Bustamante said the American enthusiasm for helping others and volunteering has rubbed off on her. She volunteered at clinics while at Broward Community College and participated in alternative spring break trips while an undergraduate at UF.

Bustamante also helped form the local nonprofit Children Beyond Our Borders, which leads alternative spring break trips to Colombia for UF students to work with displaced children.

“These trips inspire people and I love that,” she said

In fact, her most memorable times in medical school came when she felt she truly helped a patient. She said Michelle Rossi, M.D., a UF COM clinical assistant professor in internal medicine was one of her role models.

“She kneels next to the patient’s bed, so she’s giving (them) eye contact,” Bustamante said.

She said she also admired the way Rossi interacted with patients and families in a way that brought them together and comforted them during a stressful time. It’s something she said she hopes to do while working with cancer patients.

“A beautiful part of being a doctor is helping people through scary, intense and hard circumstances,” said Bustamante.