“Sorry about the mess,” Briana Ortiz says with a chuckle as she joins the Zoom call, gesturing to a shelf behind her stacked with books and papers. She explains that she’s been finishing her studies at home in Laredo while caring for her 10-year-old brother through his homeschooling process.
When Ortiz was still a teenager in high school, she took care of her brother every day while her parents juggled medical issues and work. But to set an example for her brother and empower him to dream big and persevere, she chose not to attend a local college and instead left home to pursue a degree at The University of Texas at Austin.
Now, it’s come full circle, and she’s at home with her family again. “It’s definitely been an adjustment,” she says. “My priorities are shifted, but I’m still ready for whatever the future brings.”
Ortiz is an Outstanding Student award recipient and one of our eight outstanding graduates from the 2020 class. She will graduate this spring with a bachelor’s degree in biology and a certificate in social inequality, health and policy. She plans to attend medical school in the fall.
Ortiz says her journey into medicine started with her family.
She grew up in Laredo, a predominantly Hispanic community with a cultural distrust of doctors. When she had appendicitis as a young child, her family put off going to the hospital, trying alternative remedies instead.
“At first, my grandmother tried blessing me. She was trying to cleanse me of bad energy and provide home care, but once that didn’t work, I went to the doctor and was eventually hospitalized.”
This experience left a profound mark on Ortiz.
“It’s this mistrust of physicians that really sparked my interest in medicine. Why do we not like them, and why are we so resistant toward them?”
This unique cultural perspective fueled her interest in health care, and soon enough, she vowed to become a doctor. Ortiz laughs, “It’s quite a different path than most people pursuing pre-med.”
During her time at UT, Ortiz excelled academically while also serving as a student representative for the College of Natural Sciences’ Council for Diversity Engagement and as a Women in Natural Sciences (WINS) program assistant.
“I’m always trying to push causes that I’m passionate about within the college — one of them being cultural competency,” she says. “Coming from Laredo, which is a pretty homogenous city, I kind of felt like I was in a bubble world, and I wanted UT to be different.”
On the council, Ortiz enacted programmatic change and pushed for greater diversity, equity and inclusion efforts within the classroom.
Additionally, as a WINS teaching assistant and study abroad scholarship recipient, she recalls one of her most memorable college experiences: traveling abroad with WINS to Hungary.
“I got to shadow surgeries and see autopsies, which really cemented the fact that I wanted to do medicine,” she says. “Both of my parents have only traveled within the state, so this was a huge experience for me and just my family in general who’ve never been abroad.”
Upon returning, Ortiz continued to put her passion for health care into practice, joining organizations such as the Health Advocacy Student Coalition and Women in Medicine, and volunteering with Foundation Communities and Dell Children’s Medical Center in her free time.
Although she kept busy, Ortiz says she took time for herself and did only the projects that made her happy and were truly meaningful to her.
“Try not to rush through college if you can,” Ortiz says. “Join as many things as you want to, even if they’re completely random. I was in the Beekeeping Club for a while! I know it’s been over said, but take some time and smell the roses, smell the bluebonnets, and really go through the full experience.”
Ortiz says she intends to return to Laredo after medical school to provide care for her community, and she hopes her journey inspires her brother and others to persevere and forge their own paths.