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STEM Grad to Optometrist

An international student struggling with English says Metro Tech biomedical science teachers and the rigorous program prepared her for success.

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Rob McClendon: Pick up your smart phone, open social media or your favorite news app, and odds are in no time flat you’ll run into a rant about how millennials are ruining our country. Right or wrong, this group born between the early 1980s and the late ’90s, is often much maligned. But what about Generation Z? That is the group born in the late ’90s to early 2000s forward. And yes, they are now entering the workforce. Today, our Austin Moore introduces us to one such postmillennial who despite some huge challenges, makes Generation Z seem pretty encouraging.

Austin Moore: Spring graduation at the University of Central Oklahoma brought all the expected emotions to the Pantoja family.

Joana Pantoja: My mom said she cried. I couldn’t see her, but she said she cried almost the whole time.

Austin: But this event was hardly a given for this family of hard-working immigrants, having come to the U.S. from Durango, Mexico, only 25 years ago.

Joana Pantoja: My dad just looked for a job and found a job in roofing. And he has worked in roofing ever since. Um, hot weather, cold weather, any weather except if it is raining, but he is always out there working. And then, my mom, too, she cleans houses every day of the week on her own. So she has been doing that ever since she got here, too.

Austin: A pair of young parents working and sacrificing for the betterment of their children while waiting patiently on our beleaguered immigration system. But for Joana and her brothers, school was filled with hard lessons.

Joana Pantoja: When I was in elementary school trying to do my homework, they didn’t know English. So it was hard to even understand everything that was going on. It was hard to even get through school in general. Sometimes I would get so frustrated that I would just break down crying. And my mom was like, “I’m so sorry that I can’t help you. Like, I’d really like to understand and help you with your homework.” But you get through that.

Austin: And she did. In fact, Joana’s persistence landed her at Metro Technology Center her sophomore year of high school.

Karen Upton: Biomedical Sciences Academy is a college preparatory class, and we use the medical sciences as a venue to get to the college-level academics.

Austin: Karen Upton is the first-year instructor for the program.

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Karen Upton: We are a very high rigor program. We teach science courses such as AP biology, and chemistry and those kinds of things. We also have math classes that includes AP as well. It’s a pre-pre-medical program.

Joana Pantoja: You can do it! I did it, guys!

Austin: Joana credits the teachers in this program with preparing her for later success.

Joana Pantoja: I felt really connected to my three teachers here at Metro Tech. I felt like I could really talk to them, ask them anything. And they were there to give me advice and support me in anything I wanted to do.

Austin: But she also credits the intensity of the program.

Karen Upton: Life is tough, and college is tough, and if we make it easy, then they are not going to have the skills that they need in order to be successful.

Joana Pantoja: I was amazed going into college how much easier it was than the program. I thought it was easier than the program. I know a lot of people tell me don’t go and tell incoming students that it was a lot easier, ‘cause then they are not going to try. Well, what I felt going in was that it was a lot easier. Because all of my first basic courses were things I had already been taught here. And it was just a smoother transition from high school to college. And I know I have a lot of friends who didn’t go through, like, a rigorous program like biomed or anything similar, and they, they were struggling. A lot of them were looking for tutors. And I know my first year I was just breezing through school. I mean, I got through my first year still with a 4.0, so.

Karen Upton: Joana was a success because she wanted to be. She had endurance. She was willing to listen and willing to take suggestions. She was open to new ideas and new experiences and took those experiences and ran with them.

Austin: One of those experiences left such an impression that now having completed her Bachelor’s of Science, Joana is headed to optometry school this fall.

Joana Pantoja: I have friends and I’ve had classes with people that are like, “Oh, my God, no. I can’t. I cannot look into an eye.” And like, “No. I just can’t do that,” you know But something here at Metro Tech, we had one lecture over the eye. And we learned the anatomy, the function. We dissected an eye. We learned the different eye exams that we can do, and we did it on other classmates. And all of that just really got me excited.

Austin: An excitement that has her entire family seeing a brighter future.

Rob: Now, Joana was able to forego the typical college jobs. Instead, she found a job in an on-campus laboratory, where her supervisor was shocked to learn she already knew how to run most of the equipment. She also had the ability to write research papers. And from early on in her college career, Joana was traveling across the country, presenting research to professional conferences, experiences she credits entirely to her study in Metro Tech’s Biomedical Sciences Academy.

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