Meet Stephanie Meza

Date: Monday, August 1, 2022

Stephanie MezaHometown: Filmore, California 

Stephanie Meza grew up in a rural town in southern California, the granddaughter of seasonal fruit pickers from Mexico and El Salvador. When she was a pre-teen, she encountered health care for the first time when her younger cousin was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The tumor was benign, but the family learned he would need brain surgery. 

“My family didn’t know the difference between benign and malignant. They thought brain tumor equals death,” Meza says. “Because of that communication barrier and the low health literacy they had, I saw the stress and fear in our family.” 

Other members of her family were facing mental illness, addiction, and incarceration, and the stigma compounded with their barriers to health care access prevented them from receiving the care they needed. She began to make connections. 

“When my grandma needed to go to the clinic, we would have to take three different bus rides,” Meza says. “Translating for her in my heavily American-accented Spanish, I started to notice the pattern from the beginning.”

Meza worked full time as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) while completing her pre-med coursework, but when it was time to transfer to UC Davis to complete her undergraduate degree, she came to a crossroads. 

“I knew that it would be great for my family if I continued my education, but there were still many obstacles to overcome to make that happen,” Meza says. “But I knew that my little cousins were looking up to me, so I was like, ‘I have to keep going.’”

While at UC Davis, she took a course on health care inequality and began to fit her family’s experiences into a larger narrative of the inequities in medicine. The lack of access, financial burden, and barriers to communication and understanding that prevented members of her family from getting the care they needed was part of a systemic problem. This knowledge was reinforced when her uncle became ill. 

“It started with polyps—that is preventable if you’re getting your colonoscopy. But if you’re not getting your colonoscopy, then we’re not catching that,” she says. “So it turned into colon cancer.” 

His condition worsened to a critical point before his family convinced him to seek medical care. 

“It all relates—the intergenerational misconceptions, the lack of trust, the inability to pay,” she says. “But even though he got to the doctors later, they still did their best to try to help him.” 

The experience showed Meza how providers can make a difference. 

“When there was nothing left medically to do, my uncle was going to transition into end-of-life care. I remember the way his physician allowed him to speak every single concern and walked him through every step and question to help him feel comfortable enough to choose hospice care,” Meza says. “It was an important moment not only for my uncle, but for our family.”

Inspiring hope

Meza decided that she wanted to dedicate herself to improving provider communication and health literacy for underserved and stigmatized populations. 

“The patients I cared for as a CNA were experiencing this loss of hope due to preventable diagnoses,” Meza says. “By helping them to understand the origin of their diagnoses and their treatment plans, we could help them move toward better health.”

Her first application cycle to medical school was unsuccessful, so she worked hard to diversify her health care experience, working in mental health care and as a COVID contact tracer in schools. She re-took the MCAT, and the second time, she earned interviews with more than 10 schools and offers from six. She found herself comparing every school she interviewed with to her experience interviewing at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. 

“They were the only school that connected me to a medical student who was able to answer all my questions and calm my nerves for the interview,” Meza says. “They also had a first-generation interview date, and that showed me the extra effort they put in for people like myself.” 

This fall, she’s excited to learn about Iowa’s communities and how she can leverage her own experience to help Iowans. 

“The challenges I went through developed in me an ability to find a way out of no way," Meza says. “It’s given me the confidence and tenacity to solve problems that seem unsolvable.”