Clutching her grandmother's hand as they weaved through the chaotic streets of Merida on their way to the zoo, Alma couldn’t help but be drawn to the contagious energy permeating through the walls of the Autonomous University of Yucatan.
It was here that her love for the pursuit of knowledge was born, and this clarity has driven her through multiple degrees and across a border as she works to fulfill her lifelong dream of becoming a university professor.
Now four years into her PhD in Psychology at the University of Arizona, Alma Tejeda Padron embodies the qualities of determination and perseverance shared by fellow international students across the US.
“To be honest I didn’t know what I was going to study. I didn't know until much later on in my life, but what I did know was that I didn’t care what I was going to study, I wanted to be a university professor,” Tejeda Padron said.
Her senior year of her undergraduate degree in Psychology, in the same building she used to pass by as a kid, she found a new passion for research when a nutritionist colleague of hers asked her a question. He wanted to know what he could do to get his patients to adhere to their treatment plan, but she was unable to give him an answer.
“I remember I was left dumbfounded and told him I had no idea," she said. "But it really caught my attention because I was in my last semester. I supposedly knew psychology, and I couldn’t answer this question."
Around the same time, she began to work in a research lab that also treated patients with diabetes. She found that this question came up consistently, and time and time again she was expected to produce an answer.
“I realized, in that context, these doctors would look at the psychologist as if to say ‘you are going to give us the answer as to what we can do so the patients do what they’re supposed to'," Tejeda Padron said. "So I began to devote extensive amounts of time to finding an answer, only to realize there is no one solution, just suggestions that are mostly short-term."
Following her time at that lab, Tejeda Padron took her experiences dealing with human motivation and treatment plans into consideration as she decided what to focus her post-graduate studies on. During this time she worked in a research lab at the Anahuac Mayab University on various projects that centered on conducts of nutrition and ingestion, but she knew she would have to go abroad if she wanted to expand both her knowledge and research.
“In the context in which I was raised, the people in Yucatan are very proud to be from there. It's a beautiful place and it's very common for them to be born, to grow, to reproduce, and to die [there]. But as I learned more and did more research, I felt that staying there would limit me," she said.
This insatiable hunger for knowledge and answers eventually led her to the University of Arizona, where she has been working under Matthias Mehl, PhD, in the Naturalistic Observation of Social Interaction (NOSI) lab. She's been working on a large National Institute of Health-funded project that investigates the role that implicit bias plays in how physicians communicate with Latino patients.
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Tejeda Padron is passionate about the work she is doing and is hopeful that it will serve to improve how healthcare is delivered.
“It’s so important for a patient to be satisfied with the service they are receiving because, for example, if you have a chronic disease, you have to be going in for regular checkups," she said. "But if you don’t trust the doctor you are seeing, or if you consider the doctor doesn’t respect you, or [if] the communication is fractured, you’re not going to go... there are already too many barriers keeping people from seeking healthcare, especially in the Latino community."
Mehl describes her genuinely authentic nature and determination.
“For this project, we need to walk up to Latinx people who are waiting in the doctor's office and convince them to participate in a study that allows us to audio record the medical visits. That’s obviously not a trivial question to ask," he said. "But Alma approached the patients and the vast majority of them were willing to participate and I think this is also because she really approached them in a really honest, down to earth way but it was also very determined."
Mehl recognizes the challenges that this community faces and the barriers they have to overcome. “You have to get to know a different academic system, a different university system and that’s challenging, but Alma mastered it really well,” he said.
International students face many challenges, including accessing funding and assimilating into a culture they weren’t brought up in. And some face further challenges in supporting not only themselves, but also family members. Tejeda Padron’s son, Patricio, is aware of the sacrifices his mother has had to make and grateful for the opportunities he has thanks to her.
“Coming here thanks to her studies, I am at a school that is much better than the one I was at in Mexico, and I think that has definitely influenced my dedication in school because if she wasn’t at the university I wouldn’t have access to this education,” he said.
As the pandemic rages on, the mother and son spend their days studying in their home and preparing for the future. Patricio rises to attend online class and watches as his mother sits at her computer conducting research and taking part in meetings.
Tejeda Padron has been preparing to teach her first course in the United States.
“First and foremost, I’m really excited. But I am nervous because it’s a really big group and there are a lot of things that I will be doing for the first time,” she said.
Her academic advisor is confident in her teaching ability, but recognizes that it comes with challenges.
“She’s about to teach her first class in the spring, full class of 200 students, and I think it really is enriching because she brings a lot of teaching experience from Mexico," Mehl said. "But of course, it's a different context so she kind of needs to use what's beneficial but then adjust it to the cultural context that exists here."
Tejeda Padron’s trajectory and research are a few examples of the benefits that international students bring to American society, which makes the Department of Homeland Security’s proposal of a fixed period of stay for foreign students that much more concerning.
For now, she doesn’t know what her long-term future holds.
“As long as I can keep doing what I know and love, it doesn’t really matter where I am,” she said.
One thing is certain, no matter how much time passes, her heartstrings will always be pulled by the possibility of knowledge, just like when she was a little girl on her way to the zoo.
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