Chasing the Dream of Becoming a Doctor: How to Make it Through Premed As a Student-Athlete

The pre-med track is anything but a cakewalk. Various science courses, problem sets, and long hours in the lab are the name of the game for completing what is required to get into med school. And doing this while balancing the demands of college athletics presents a unique challenge for student-athletes that want to be doctors. 

Gizelle Pera faced this challenge as a two-sport college athlete at Claremont McKenna. When speaking to Gizelle for this interview, she described the anxiety that came with playing soccer, softball, and pursuing her pre-med requirements. Having completed her Doctorate of Dental Surgery from UCLA, Gizelle can identify the ways in which sports helped develop the mindset that got her through the challenges and workload of obtaining her degree and becoming a doctor. In this interview, she details her life at Claremont McKennsa, what it took to get into UCLA, and how she overcame imposter syndrome to get her degree.

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What was the hardest part about being pre-dental as a dual-sport student-athlete?

I think choosing between your “big nights” and just saying no was hard. Since I played a fall and a spring sport, I never had an off-season. Combine that with a full class schedule, eight hours of lab every week, and you have a lot on your plate. In order to keep my grades high, I had to say no to a lot of parties and hanging out with friends to get my work done and stay on track. That being said, I never missed the big events. I couldn’t do it all. I had to make sacrifices. I chose to study abroad and miss one soccer season. When I was abroad I couldn’t party as hard as everyone else because I needed to go on a run or do something else to stay fit. I had to miss the biggest party of the year because I had to take my finals all in one day because we were leaving for the NCAA tournament. 

How were you able to cope with such a heavy workload? Was there anything you would’ve done differently?

I think I had the true passion behind me to get me through it! No mountain was too high. I do think I should have said yes to more of the fun stuff, especially during my first two years. It was hard because I took Bio and Chem the first year, and O-Chem and Physics the second year (which is why it added up to eight hours of work). I felt like I had my eyes on the prize so much that I felt like a lot of my decisions revolved around “is this going to get me to where I need to be”. The nights I enjoyed the most were the ones where I just kicked back and spent time with my friends. Sometimes, not doing school can help you with school.

Was there ever a time that you wanted to quit being pre-med? If so, how did you push through that?

Since I was aiming to start dental school right after college, I wanted to take the DAT when it was fresh in my mind. So, I decided, even though I was working a full time job, to take the DAT three days before I left for my study abroad trip to Ecuador. I didn’t study as hard as I should have, and my score wasn’t great. I felt as though I wasn’t going to be good enough, especially not for UCLA, but I reminded myself I have a lot of good things going for me. I didn’t let myself stress, instead I relied on my other strengths and hoped it was good enough to get me in. 

I always reminded myself that this has been a dream of mine since I was a little girl. To be honest, if I didn’t become a dentist, I have no idea what else I would have been. There’s a particular photo of me brushing my younger sister’s teeth when I was about eight years old. I could never give up on that little girl. That photo was framed and given to me by my sister. It’s in my office on display for all my patients to see. If I ever have a rough day, that photo serves as a reminder to me of why I chose to do this. 

What was applying to Dentistry School like? Can you shed light on the application process.

While the application was open, I was in Costa Rica doing research for my senior thesis. I wasn’t sure how the internet was going to be down there, so I made sure that before I left the country all my materials (letters of rec, my personal statement, etc.) were ready to go and that I would just need to click send. I applied early, which supposedly gives you a better shot of getting in. About two months later, I was called in for the first round of interviews at UCLA, which was a great sign. I had a soccer game the same day, so I booked it out of the interview, kept my coach updated, made it to the game 15 minutes before the start and still started the game as center back!

Do you remember how you felt when you got accepted? What was that experience like?

I was in my tennis class on December 1, 2010. I knew that if I got in, a phone call would be coming that day. I was in the middle of a rally and dropped my racket and ran as soon as I heard my phone ring. I jumped and screamed like a kid who just found out they got a puppy. The admissions director was laughing at me. Back when I first seriously considered applying to dental school in 2007, I had been told by a dentist I shadowed that I wouldn’t be able to get in. And I proved him wrong. I felt invincible that day, and I just remembered that I wouldn’t let anything get me down that day. That was one of the top-three best days of my life (and that includes my wedding!). I’ll never forget it. 

How was your experience in UCLA different than your experience in Claremont McKenna? 

Instead of my typical four hours of practice a day (and usually 2-3 hours studying after school), I would need ALL that time to study. I was used to studying in less time, and now because our class load was so much harder, I needed to spend a lot more time focusing than I was used to.

I was also surrounded by a lot more brain-power. We had a handful of valedictorians in our class; only one other guy was a student athlete, so my class was full of individuals who were used to being on top. We also had a lot of students who have parents in dentistry or who have taken pre-dental specific classes. It was incredibly competitive. UCLA only accepts the cream of the crop, so imagine only competing with people who are the cream of the crop.

The classes were longer. College, in comparison, was a much lighter schedule. If you didn’t have lab, you typically had 3-4 hours of class a day, 4 days a week. In dental school you typically have an 8-5 class schedule, five days a week. I was also one of the few students commuting from home, so I would bring 3 meals a day to school. Some of my classmates would swear that I lived at school.

Did you ever experience a sort of ‘imposter syndrome’ when classes weren’t going your way? How did you cope?

I always felt like I didn’t belong. I felt like the jock who somehow magically got in, even though I was invited for the first interview and was accepted with a scholarship. I failed my anatomy class my first year. It was my fault, I simply didn’t put in the time to study for it. It didn’t get better after that. I failed two classes the following quarter and found myself having a panic attack. I walked out of class and told the assistant dean that if I didn’t talk myself off of the bridge, I was going to walk out of that school for good. I think this was my rock bottom and the first step to my recovery: I needed to get help. I had a few sessions with our school therapist to help improve my outlook. I stopped wasting so much time stressing about studying and started ACTUALLY studying. I avoided toxic people or situations that would only hurt me from getting where I wanted to be. From there, things started to get a lot better. 

Were there any skills that you gained through sports that helped you power through UCLA’s rigorous program?

Patience: You’re not going to learn how to hit a 65 mph rise ball in one practice. Nor how to do a root canal. These highly technical skills take time to develop. 

Teamwork: dental school was a lot easier when you could divide and conquer the subject matter. It took me time to figure out who I work well with and what tasks I can best contribute towards. 

Relentlessness: I don’t know if this is a skill that I gained. I think this might have been something I have always had inside me and it comes out in moments of need, like when you’re recovering from a surgery and trying to get back on the field or realizing in a month you have to take 13 finals in a single week so you need to be studying now. It’s the fight and the fire that lights up inside you instead of feeling like you need to just give up.

How do you keep that competitive part of your identity alive now that you are out of school?

Unfortunately, I can’t do as much as I used to physically, due to the wear and tear on my body. I enjoy backpacking, High intensity interval training (HIIT) classes at the gym, I even took up boxing for a while. Competitive spin classes are a great way to compete against yourself and see how you size up with others. I challenge myself in my career by constantly educating myself to learn what's the latest and greatest in dentistry. I hold it to myself to be up-to-date on procedures and materials, and I also help others by sharing that information. Other than that, to be honest I kind of have to hold back my competitive nature because in situations other than sports or school, it may come across as insane or irrational. You see it make some rare appearances, for example, while playing Settlers of Catan, a seemingly innocuous pick-up game of beach volleyball, or arguing that How I Met Your Mother is a much better television series than Friends. I know I lost a lot of cool points for that.

What advice would you give current student-athletes that are pre-med?

This goes for everyone, not just for student-athletes. This is going to sound silly, but make sure you want to do it. Do everything you can to put yourself in a doctor’s shoes. Volunteer, be a scribe, shadow, do whatever it takes. Do it because you love it and not because you want the prestige of being a doctor. Trust me, it’s not as glamorous or lucrative as it appears. Know how much student loan debt affects your lifestyle. If you truly love the profession and pursue it for the right reasons, you will make it.