Duke seniors often find themselves pulled in multiple directions when deciding what to do following graduation: do they pursue a position which directly prepares them for a career in their chosen field, or do they take the time to explore other possibilities and gain valuable experience in a position that may not match their major? Current Duke medical student Alex Villeda realized that those two pathways were not at odds with one another. “I considered doing something ‘science-y’ for my gap year between undergrad and med school, but joining Duke College Advising Corps was the best thing I could have possibly done to prepare for my future,” he declares with confidence. As he reflects on his pathway to and through CAC, it is clear that he found a creative and impactful way to integrate his professional pursuits, his passions, and his personal experiences during his time as an Adviser.
Villeda, who was born at Duke Children’s hospital and raised in nearby Caswell County, grew up assuming that he would go to college but knew very few people who had. His parents, who until recently were undocumented, “always encouraged me and provided the environment to enable me to move forward in life,” but were unfamiliar with the college application process and didn’t know the right questions to ask. Fortunately, Villeda found additional support and encouragement from his high school guidance counselor, among other mentors, who recognized his potential, advocated for him, and helped him navigate this uncharted territory. Villeda was the first in his family to graduate from high school and upon coming to Duke, became the first to attend college.
When Villeda saw an advertisement for College Advising Corps during his sophomore year, he immediately thought about his own high school guidance counselor and the crucial role she played in helping him get to Duke. He wanted to be able to give that experience back, for students like himself to know the feeling of “having someone who genuinely wants to see you succeed,” so he chose to join the 2016-2017 Duke College Advising Corps for his gap year.
Once in the position of Adviser, Villeda took that ethos and ran with it. As he got to know his placement school, the City of Medicine Academy in Durham, he came to appreciate the flexibility of the College Advising Corps model, which allowed him to learn the unique needs and assets of his school and shape a program to fit it. Since the school is 82% female and 90% students of color, Villeda recognized the need for those students to have role models that reflected their own identities. After talking through his ideas at length with the Duke College Advising Corps program director, Villeda began to roll out an innovative program tailor-made for his students.
“I just thought about what I would have wanted at that age and tried to fit as much of that as possible into one week; I wanted to give them what I didn’t have” says Villeda of the Summer Academy for Latinx United for Diversity (SALUD). With the support of the CAC program director and teachers from the City of Medicine Academy, he created a one-week program to expose 19 students to professional mentors in STEM fields. On day one, students visited El Centro Hispano for a talk on social determinants of health, given by two Latina physicians. The rest of the week included a tour of Duke Medical School, introductions to many potential mentors, mock patient interviews, and readings and reflections about scientific articles. “I was excited to have the opportunity to celebrate Latinx excellence, because that’s not often recognized,” he says. He recalls having a student ask him “if they can do this, does that mean I can do it too?” and knowing that the mission of SALUD had been fulfilled.
Prior to his year as an Adviser, Villeda planned to go to med school to pursue a career in research. His time in CAC showed him how much he loved community work and building sustained relationships, which led him to select the Primary Care Leadership Track at Duke School of Medicine. He reflects that his time with CAC was “not just about being a college counselor” but was about learning from his students and growing as a person. Villeda found that his experience as an Adviser helped him discover his own strengths, learn to take risks, and clarify his goals. Fittingly, his favorite part of the position was seeing that exact process take place for his students: to have students come to him uncertain of their futures but begin to develop a plan, set goals, and see those goals come to fruition.
**Learn more and apply for Duke College Advising Corps here. Applications will be accepted through April 22. **