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Above and Beyond | Where are they now?

Where are they now? Juan Rojas-Cabrera, Above and Beyond winner, enters new phase as M.D.-Ph.D. student

From the COLLECTION: Where are they now? Catch up with former scholarship winners series
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ROCHESTER — In the midst of applying to medical schools last summer, Juan Rojas-Cabrera received an email he had been waiting on for almost two years.

The St. Charles High School and Winona State University graduate was caught up in pandemic-induced bureaucratic backups with his application for a permanent U.S. resident visa. When he least expected it, he was finally granted an immigration interview, the last step towards permanent residency.

“I remember it, I was napping and woke up, and I checked my phone and saw I got an email. It was in the summer, so the main thing I was concerned about was interviews, because that’s where they send interview invites for medical school,” Rojas-Cabrera said. “I clicked on it, and it said National Visa Center.”

Two weeks later, Rojas-Cabrera was traveling to the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, for his interview, a gamble considering his migratory status. If his visa application was denied, he would be forced to remain in his homeland, a country he had not lived in since 2001.

To both his delight and relief, his visa was approved, and in the ensuing months he received more acceptance letters, this time from 15 medical schools for M.D.-Ph.D. programs. While Stanford University and Yale University were some of his front-runners, Rojas-Cabrera was set on staying in Minnesota, and he started his program at Mayo Clinic’s Alix School of Medicine in Rochester this summer.

“At the end of the day, yeah, I’ve been in Minnesota all my life, but I’ve been successful here, there’s great opportunities here, and you can’t really beat an institution like the Mayo Clinic and all the opportunities they have,” Rojas-Cabrera said. “I’m a month and a half in, and I’m loving it.”

Since being St. Charles’ recipient of the Above and Beyond scholarship in 2015, Rojas-Cabrera has pursued his dream of becoming a physician while remaining close to home and his family.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in nursing from WSU in 2019 and becoming the first in his family to graduate college, he spent two years in a post-baccalaureate program working in a neural engineering lab under Dr. Kendall Lee. There, he specialized in projects on deep brain stimulation and contributed to four research papers that were published in academic journals.

Now, Rojas-Cabrera is in the beginning stages of a seven-year program — which features two years of medical school courses, three years of Ph.D. work and two more years finishing an M.D. degree. He plans to rejoin Lee’s lab to complete the Ph.D. portion of his program.

While Rojas-Cabrera’s career in medicine is still in the distance, he said his aspirations are to work in academia because of his influential experiences in research labs.

“I want to be in an academic setting because I really like research, and I like the environment of teaching and giving back to others through teaching,” he said. “I just hope to be at a point in my life in seven years where I’ll be getting ready for residency and going to my next step in life.”

In 2019, he married his high school sweetheart, Laynee, and the couple live together in Rochester. With his parents and younger siblings just 25 miles away in St. Charles, Rojas-Cabrera said he is finding time to visit them on weekends when he has breaks in medical school.

During his time in Mexico last summer, Rojas-Cabrera connected with some his relatives for the first time in nearly two decades. He recalled meeting and conversing with his maternal grandfather who passed away last month.

“It was nice to see him,” Rojas-Cabrera said. “The thing that hurt me the most is that my mom wasn’t able to see him, so she’s lost two parents; having left in 2001 she wasn’t able to see them. That was the hardest part.”

Rojas-Cabrera was awarded the Above and Beyond scholarship for overcoming hardships in high school. His grades slipped during his freshman year as drugs started to influence his life, but he managed to rebound and achieved a 4.0 grade point average in his junior and senior years.

Seven years after receiving the scholarship, Rojas-Cabrera reflected on its impact on his personal life through validating his advancement from one of the lowest points of his life.

“For me, the biggest focus wasn’t the monetary aspect,” he said. “What meant more to me was the fact that there were people out there that recognized I was improving, and not just improving for my own benefit, but for the benefit of other people. To me, that felt great.”

Donations to the Extra Effort and the Above & Beyond programs to help support scholarships for deserving high school seniors who have overcome challenges can be made through the La Crosse Community Foundation and the Winona Community Foundation.

For Extra Effort: To give online visit at www.laxcommfoundation.com. Checks can be written to Extra Effort Fund and mailed to the Foundation at 401 Main St., Ste. 205, La Crosse, WI 54601.

For Above & Beyond: To give online, visit www.winonacf.org/donate. Checks can be written to the the Winona Community Foundation and reference Above & Beyond; this can be in the memo line or in the payable to line. Mail to Winona Community Foundation, 111 Riverfront Suite 2E, Winona, MN 55987

Congratulations to the Winona Daily News' Above & Beyond students in the Class of '22

Andrew Polk can be reached at andrew.polk@lee.net or via Twitter @apolk17

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