I was introduced to Dr. Arlene Castillo through a facebook post. I immediately reached out to schedule a time to interview her. I knew that her story is too important to our community not to share. Life (and pandemics and facebook privacy settings) happen so it took a minute to get us in touch.
Dr. Castillo, thank you again for your time, your willingness to share your story, and being so gracious. You inspire me – and I am sure – us all. I am sorry you will not be able to bask in the glory of all your accomplishments as you walk across the SUNY Downstate College of Medicine stage because that your graduation from MEDICAL SCHOOL will be virtual and not in person – BUT believe me when I say that it is SO VERY REAL. We are still cheering for you.
I hope you all enjoy Dr. Castillo’s story as much I have enjoyed meeting her. #hostosclassof2011
Who are you?
My name is Arlene Castillo. I was born in the Dominican Republic and I moved to the Bronx when I was 6 years old. I’m proud to have attended HLA for the teachers, the early college experience and it is where I met my boyfriend and some of my closest friends. I went to Hunter College where I majored in Biochemistry and Gender studies. I’m currently a fourth year medical student at SUNY Downstate College of Medicine in Brooklyn and I’ll be graduating medical school next week. I’ll be training as an anesthesiologist in the Bronx, at Montefiore Medical Center starting this summer.
When did you attend Hostos Lincoln Academy of Science?
My time in Hostos started in 6th grade actually, in 2004. I went to an elementary school about 4 blocks away from where I live but it did not have a middle school and so my parents were looking for a middle school that was also near home … when we found out Hostos was opening a middle school the year I was graduating elementary school, we were ecstatic because it was two blocks away. I was in the middle school for the years of 2004-2007, and in 2007 I enrolled for HLA high school, graduating in 2011. I know I was a good student in middle school but do not remember any actual number grades. In high school, I graduated with an advanced regents diploma with a 97 average and various recognitions*. I’m proud to say I’ve always worked hard to be the best student that I can be. I think this motivation stems from migrating to NYC from Dominican Republic at a young age, knowing no English and having to work extra hard in bilingual classes to catch up to my classmates in elementary school. As immigrants themselves, my parents’ only hope is to see me and my younger sister live the American dream of going to college and getting a job. They have high expectations for us and have always been so supportive of our academic goals.
*I looked up my high school graduation program and my name is listed for these: Principal’s Education Awards in Outstanding Academic Excellence, Chancellor’s Honor Roll Excellence in Leadership, Certificate of Excellence in recognition of Outstanding Academic Achievement by the Public Advocate for the NYC, Outstanding Academic Performance in Law, Science Award for Scholarship in Science, Academic Excellence in AP Spanish, Academic Excellence in Statistics
What was your High School admissions process?
Because I had been a HLA middle school student and had my closest friends there, I knew I wanted to stay at Hostos. However, I do remember reading about the NYC specialized high schools and thinking that perhaps going to a school like Bronx Science could be a major opportunity for me, knowing I wanted to go to medical school. I also remember hearing that there were other schools that were more spacious and better resourced than Hostos. Besides my friends, the other big reason why Hostos was appealing to me was this talk of an early college initiative to graduate high school with a college degree. So, I followed my instincts. Hostos was like a second home and I put it as my number one choice on the high school application. To be honest, I don’t remember what other schools I listed, I probably chose other schools that were not too far to commute, but I felt really confident that I would get into Hostos – I did and so did the majority of my middle school class. We all continued on our Hostos journey from middle school to high school.
What were your thoughts about HLA as a student?
The thing about Hostos during my time there was that my graduating class was the first in their middle school and the first to try the early college initiative during high school. Being the first class is always a risk, and we did feel at times like we were guinea pigs. But I think with every year that passed, we felt more ambitious and proud to lead the classes behind us. All of our teachers and administrators really supported us in our schoolwork.
What were your thoughts about HLA as an alum?
The first thing that was evident to me was how small HLA was! When I went to college and I saw how many students were in some of my introductory science classes, I laughed at how much we (my graduating high school class) prided ourselves in being Hostos’ biggest graduating class with about 70 students. Well, two of my very first science classes at Hunter were each held in auditoriums that seated about 700-800 students per class. And then hearing from other college classmates about their high schools, it made Hostos feel small and it made me feel small as a student. In college, I was in classes with students who had taken AP level science courses in their high school, something not offered at Hostos. Among other things, I started to really hear about the breath of resources that other schools had and I have to admit I was feeling a little lost, especially in this big CUNY system. It was a reality check because I also felt like I was one of the top students in HLA but going to Hunter, there were so many other students smarter than me. However, having all of my college credits easily transferred from Hostos Community College to Hunter college, lifted a weight off my shoulders, because these fulfilled a lot of my general education requirements and I felt like that was my leg up in Hunter to focus on my major requirements.
What was the first college class you took? What were your thoughts going in?
My very first college class was college Spanish as a high school freshman. With Spanish being my first language, it was not that difficult. The first college class I took where I really felt the pressure was calculus. HLA had us prepared to advance through math classes from middle school, as we took math A in 8th grade (math A was traditionally taken in high school) and math B as high school freshmen. As a high school sophomore, it was now time to take a college level math course. Calculus was just so different from the math I had taken; it really is like a different language. I struggled. I went from having 90s in math A and math B, to a C in calculus. It was hard to see that but I tried my best. The next year, I took AP calculus and got a 95 in the class.
I can’t talk about my Hostos Community College experience without talking about the courses I took with Professor Flores. She taught us two courses – Caribbean literature and Latino literature. I think I can speak for a lot of my classmates when I say that these classes changed us. Professor Flores was eager to teach us our African and indigenous roots through literature. Her energy was contagious. She wanted us to explore and deconstruct various topics that we had never discussed in neither high school nor college classes – race, sex, gender, sexuality, and more. It was really refreshing and empowering to get that kind of education as a teenager. Being part of her class inspired me to take more gender studies classes when I entered Hunter College, so much that it became my second major.
How was being an Early College student different than being a “regular” Highschool student?
The first thing that comes to mind is giving up my summers during high school. I remember having to take college classes almost all year round – fall, spring and summer semesters. As a high school student, it took a lot of time management skills, which I know I was poor in but learned along the way. It’s a good thing HLA and Hostos Community College were in the same building/right next to each other back then.
Where are you now? What are you doing?
I’m a fourth year medical school student, done with all of my medical school requirements and waiting to *virtually* graduate next week. In the last year of medical school, there’s some free time to enjoy before going to residency, students usually travel and have fun before officially starting to work in the summer. However, due to pandemic, I’ve been quarantined at home with my parents and sister, spending some quality time with family.
In March, I matched into anesthesiology residency at Montefiore Medical Center. This means, I will be training for four years to become an anesthesiologist and I’m so humbled to train at Montefiore. While I was in high school and college, I volunteered for a few hospitals in the Bronx and Manhattan, but volunteering for Lincoln and Montefiore felt extra special because I knew I was giving back to my community and serving patients that looked like me, my family and my neighbors. This was a motivating factor for not only why I chose to become a doctor, but also why I am interested in working in the Bronx. There is nothing greater than relating to and understanding patients better when you share similar backgrounds. My greatest hope is that my work as a doctor will greatly influence the communities that need it most.
How did HLA and/or Hostos help you get to where you are now?
Hostos has been a great stepping stone in my journey to medicine. As a child, I always said I wanted to be a doctor and I carried this dream around through school, but I’m grateful to all of my teachers and school administrators for guiding me along the way and pushing me to be the best student that I can be.
The way the early college program was promoted to my graduating class was to earn enough credits so that you may hopefully graduate from a 4-year college in 2 years. I had this so ingrained in my head that when I went to Hunter, I went in thinking I’m here to graduate in two years and go to medical school early. But when I sat down with an advisor, I realized a lot of my pre-med requirements had not been fulfilled with the associate’s degree and that I had a lot more 2-years worth of credits to complete. And what’s tricky about being a science major or a pre-med student is that the science courses you take start at a 100 level course which you need to go on to the 200 level and so on, and most of the classes have a lab component. This meant that I could not take more than 2 science classes per semester and so I had to stay at Hunter for more than the two years I expected. I have to admit I was crushed in the moment because I had this expectation of graduating early and because some of my other Hostos classmates with different majors could still graduate in two years.
However, by completing almost all of my general education requirements at HLA/Hostos Community College, I was able to focus on my major requirements. I now had the time to put it in a lot of effort towards my science classes at Hunter and it allowed me to double major in Gender Studies. The classes I took at Hunter were now classes I was genuinely interested in. I’m really glad I had this flexibility because college is the best time to explore a lot of topics and fields – whether that is within your chosen field but also outside of it. And the diversity in the classes you take and what you learn from them is what can make you into a better-rounded student and person.
What is your advice to students entering the Early College process?
My advice is to use this early college process as a way of learning how college works and how different it is from high school. Little things like knowing how to manage your time for assignments listed in the syllabus to knowing what resources are offered in college like going to the library or tutoring centers, will give you at least the foundation of how to be a college student. Enjoy all of the college classes you are taking in high school, there is at least one thing to take away from them. And when your time is done at Hostos, and you go on to another college, walk in there with the confidence that you have done some college before and you can tackle what’s next for you.
What is your advice to students entering the healthcare field?
For anyone entering the healthcare field, my advice is to explore the various health career options there are. Some people equate a healthcare career with being a doctor, but there is so much more than that. Alongside doctors, there are physician assistants, nurses, medical assistants, dentists, pharmacists, lab technicians, EMTs and so many more I won’t list. You can explore these options by reading about them online or by volunteering. When I volunteered at a hospital is when I encountered some of these professionals and I learned that many different jobs actually comprise the healthcare system. Reading about the career options will help you understand how long do you have to be in school, what is the training process like for different careers – and you can find a job that fits for you.
With that said, because there are so many roles in the healthcare field, my advice for those interested in this type of work is to remember that healthcare is a team sport. Taking care of patients involves many individuals with different expertise and skills. Each person is important l and we all work together for the health of patients.
What is your advice to students who aspire to be doctors?
My advice to students who aspire to be doctors is that it’s a long road but time will pass anyway, so follow your dreams. While I was in high school and college, I didn’t think that so many years of school and training would ever bother me. I even took a gap year after college because I wanted to get some “life” experience and worked as a medical scribe by typing medical charts for doctors in an urgent care clinic. But during medical school, now even almost graduating, I’m feeling burned out and I still have residency left to do. I can’t even tell you how many people have told me, “are you sure you want to be a doctor? You’ll be in school forever.” While it sometimes feels like that’s the case, time flies. When I was in high school, I used to say; wow I have four years of college to do. And when I was in college, I said wow I have four years of medical school to do. And now that I’m done with medical school, I’m thinking wow I have four years of residency to do. But I also remind myself; wow I actually completed eight years of schooling. So, take everything one step at a time and before you know it, you’ll blink and years have gone by.
Also, please take advantage of participating in pre-med programs that will help navigate you through volunteering experiences, research experiences, the medical school application process and provide you with the right mentoring. Grades are very important, but extracurricular experiences matter a lot when applying for medical school. I took my medical school entrance exam (MCAT) twice and unfortunately had a low grade twice. However, I had good college grades and I made sure I showed my commitment through volunteering, doing research, tutoring, and working at a clinic. I think this is what ultimately showed medical schools how determined I was to get in. And all of my experiences were the major talking points in my medical school interviews.
What was your biggest lesson in life?
My biggest life lesson comes from my dad; he always tells me “todo solución menos la muerte” which translates to ‘everything has a solution except death.’ And although that line ends a little negative, the message really gives me the biggest hope whenever I face a new challenge. I’ve had times where I felt like things were getting so difficult academically and emotionally, and felt like I could not do it. Whether it was getting a very low grade in my medical school entrance exam twice or feeling overwhelmed with the amount of information I had to learn in medical school. I just think back and say to myself that everything has a solution and no matter how big of a problem I think I’m in, there’s always a way.
Don’t give up.
Make your way.