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Stanford physician assistant student Yadira Castaneda

A daughter of farmworkers, Stanford physician assistant student plans to care for the underserved

In the Spotlight: Yadira Castañeda, a Stanford physician assistant student, discusses her goal to care for people like her parents, immigrant farmworkers.

Yadira Castañeda, a second-year student in the Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies program, experienced culture shock when she arrived at Stanford as an undergraduate. She had always lived in small farming towns, first in Mexico, then Washington state.

Stanford was her first encounter with a competitive private institution, but she warmed to the school, staying on after graduation to earn a certificate in preventing chronic disease and to work for Stanford Medicine before enrolling in the PA program. After graduation, she hopes to care for people like the farmworkers she grew up with -- immigrants, low-income families and others who lack access to care.

I spoke with Castañeda about her upbringing, her family and why she chose to become a physician assistant.

What was your childhood like?

I was born in Mezquital del Oro, in Zacatecas, Mexico. It's very peaceful there, full of fruit trees, and it rains a lot in the summer. My dad traveled to the United States as a seasonal migrant worker, picking cherries, apples and other fruit.

He settled in Cashmere, Washington, a town of about 3,000 people, where he picked fruit in the summer and in winter, would prune the trees. We joined him there when I was 9; my older sister was 19; and my younger sisters, identical twins, were 3.

There were only 120 students in my graduating class. I danced in high school, performed in musicals and played the clarinet. I was one of three valedictorians. Not many students in my high school went to four-year colleges right out of high school; I think only eight of us from my class did.

Why did you choose to attend Stanford as an undergraduate?

My parents encouraged us to do well in school -- that's why they immigrated, so we would have better opportunities. They wanted us to go to college.

As high school freshmen, my classmates and I wrote letters to our future selves that we later read as seniors. I wrote that I wanted to go to Stanford. A teacher encouraged me to apply. I looked at the campus online, and Memorial Church really captured my heart. It reminded me of my home in Mexico. The Spanish architecture really resonated with me.

Why did you decide to go into medicine?

When we were in Mexico, we lived in front of the town's health clinic. My mom started helping the one nurse in the clinic. She didn't have a nursing degree, but the nurse trained her to do nursing work because they were so understaffed. I grew up seeing my mom helping deliver babies and giving people shots. She assisted the doctor, and she learned about different medications. I've just always thought of myself as going into medicine.

Why did you choose to earn a physician assistant degree?

I took a few years off after graduation to explore various paths. I worked with doctors, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, nurses and social workers. In the summer of 2014, after I graduated, I worked for a community health clinic. We would drive to migrant camps in central Washington and set up temporary clinics. The people we saw were seasonal workers. We treated a lot of hypertension and diabetes, and many patients hadn't seen a health care provider in years. After working alongside physician assistants and nurse practitioners, I envisioned myself in their role.

Serving as an interpreter and seeing the great need for Spanish-speaking providers fueled my desire to become a PA and provide care for medically-underserved and vulnerable populations. I also wanted some flexibility to change my specialty.

What do you want people to know about farmworkers?

The type of work that migrant farmworkers do is very physically demanding. When my father picked pears, he carried a bag hung from straps on his shoulders. When it got heavy, his shoulders would get bruised, and sometimes they would bleed. My mom's arms would swell after sorting fruit in a warehouse. 

What is the rest of your family doing now?

My immediate family is all in Washington. My older sister is a nurse's aide. My younger sisters are in college; they want to be teachers. My parents are now retired, enjoying a well-deserved rest. I have many aunts, uncles and cousins in Mezquital del Oro. I visit them when I can.

What would you do if you couldn't pursue a career in medicine?

I would be involved in policy. Maybe I'd be a lawyer. If I didn't need to worry about earning money, I would be a dancer and perform in musicals. Or I would be a DJ. I love music from artists like Bad Bunny, Residente, Shakira and Antonio Aguilar. I would really like that. Being a DJ would be fun.

Photo courtesy of the Castañeda family

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