Two passions lead to medicine
Scholar overcomes fear of failure; now becoming a doctor
Cassandra Kasten-Arias discovered her twin passions for biology and community service as a student at Rachel Carson Environmental Middle School in Beaverton, spending volunteer hours to pull invasive weeds. At Aloha High School, she decided she wanted to meld those interests and be a doctor, after discovering in a class examining developing countries that medicine could be a humanitarian career.
“We shouldn’t let our fears limit
Then she changed her mind. “I’m not good at standardized exams,” explains Kasten-Arias. “I remember getting my ACT score. I cried because it wasn't where I wanted it to be. I felt like I couldn't handle medical school; I doubted myself.”
She switched her goal to nursing and entered Linfield College in fall of 2013 as a Ford Scholar. It was the first time she had been away from her parents, younger brother and the house she had lived in her whole life. Her parents met at work at Reser’s Fine Foods in the 1980s. Her mom was a recent immigrant from Mexico; her dad grew up in Corvallis.
“I think their story is really beautiful,” she says. “He taught her English, one new word each day.”
During her first year at Linfield, she met a professor who, noting her interest in biology, asked her some probing questions about her goals. “That made me reflect more, and I decided I was choosing nursing because I was afraid of failing. And that pushed me to reconsider.”
With the encouragement of her Linfield professor, she transferred to University of Portland, closer to home. She graduated in 2017 with a degree in biology and Spanish.
At UP, she took medical Spanish classes and continued that work as a volunteer during a gap year, helping patients who may have been anxious during their appointments.
“Interpreters are advocates for patients, so we can address cultural barriers. We help bridge a lot of the gaps, not just language,” she says.
And that trouble with standardized tests? Kasten-Arias connected with a prep course that helped her with the MCAT, but she points out that test scores are just a small component of an application. “Schools like OHSU look at the entire person,” she says. They value “community service, research, and a clear passion for getting into medical school.”
Today, Kasten-Arias is a first-year medical student at Oregon Health Sciences University.
“It’s been challenging, but it’s a dream come true,” she says. “I’ve met incredible peers who are inspiring and are really in medicine to help people.”
Kasten-Arias received OHSU’s Scholars for Healthy Oregon award, which covers tuition for her entire four years as long as she commits to serving five years in an under-served area.
She has some advice for others: “We shouldn’t let our fears limit our dreams. I would encourage high school students to seek out professors or teachers who they connect with and have a dialogue about what it would take to achieve career goals. What helped me to decide what field I wanted to go into was volunteering. Start volunteering in their community and see what passions develop.”
Serving her community
Community service has always been an integral part of Cassandra Kasten-Arias’s life, and despite a busy medical school schedule, her dedication to that work continues. In her role as an elected member of her student council, she serves as its liaison to OHSU’s Center of Diversity and Inclusion. “I have helped organize twice-monthly CDI Meet & Greet dinners for interviewees of underrepresented backgrounds in medicine,” says Kasten-Arias.
She is on the board of the school’s Latino Medical Student Association, where she serves as mentorship manager. Through LMSA, she volunteered last fall with Casey Eye Institute to provide free vision screenings to low income, uninsured or under-insured individuals who were predominantly Spanish-speaking.
And through OHSU’s On Track program, Kasten-Arias visited Woodburn High School with a group of medical students to talk about higher education and their paths to medical school.
“I feel grateful to be part of these events because they allow me to pay it forward,” she says.