For Jennifer Cortes, a career in medicine had always been what she wanted to do. From growing up having conversations about science with her engineer father to studying bioengineering in college, Jennifer possesses a quiet determination that has driven her toward becoming a physician. As a young child, she was drawn to the intricate workings of the human body, and while she hasn’t lost that curiosity, Jennifer’s interest in medicine has grown to recognize its great capacity for helping others.

Jennifer followed her track to medical school by majoring in bioengineering at University of Pittsburgh. During her undergraduate career, she was involved in a variety of activities, including volunteer work, extracurriculars, and research. Jennifer worked as a volunteer translator for the Birmingham Free Clinic, which provides care to uninsured and underinsured individuals in the city of Pittsburgh. As a translator, Jennifer would stay with a patient throughout their entire visit, from greeting them, to being in the room with them during their doctor’s appointment, to walking over to the pharmacy and helping them understand how to take their medications. Now being in clinic and approaching patients from the perspective of a physician, Jennifer says that her time as a translator has grown her ability to effectively communicate with patients, enabling her to pick up on their needs. In addition to volunteering with the Birmingham Free Clinic, Jennifer also volunteered with the Newman Center, a campus ministry program, was a writer for the Pitt Pulse, a pre-health periodical on campus, and was part of the Brown Leadership Fellowship, a program that was aimed at teaching students the skills and tools needed for community development and social change. To support her academic pursuits, Jennifer was also involved in research. She worked to research the neurological impact of cocaine addiction on a nonhuman primate model. As a part of this work, Jennifer participated the Conte Center for the Neuroscience of Mental Disorders Fellowship, which was aimed at helping students determine if they wanted to pursue further education in psychiatry. This program allowed her to shadow various psychiatrists and see the influence that research, like what Jennifer’s lab was conducting, can have on real patients. Jennifer said she found the research impactful and fascinating, and it furthered her interest in neurology and psychiatry. After earning her undergraduate degree, Jennifer remained in Pittsburgh for a gap year to continue research. It was also during this time that Jennifer applied to the Carle Illinois College of Medicine.

Jennifer Cortes at her graduation from University of Pittsburgh.
Jennifer with her parents at her graduation from the University of Pittsburgh.

When Jennifer received her admittance to Carle Illinois, she was ecstatic. “I was very excited because it kind of seemed to be exactly what I was looking for that no other school had,” Jennifer said. For Jennifer, being in medical school has been everything she’s been looking forward to for years. “My whole life I’ve been waiting to get to medical school to start learning about the things I’ll be doing for the rest of my life,” she said. And, now that she’s here, she is seizing every opportunity to make the most of her time. She has already become actively involved in, not only the campus community, but also the Champaign-Urbana community. Jennifer teaches Sunday school to seventh graders at a local church and helps them get prepared for their Confirmation ceremonies the following year. She also helped start the student section of the Catholic Medical Association, and she is helping organize Campaña de Salud, a health fair which aims to connect members of the community to available health resources. Additionally, she said she has truly found a home at Carle Illinois, especially because of the close bond she shares with all of her classmates and especially her podmates. Jennifer finds that her Innovation Pod is her source of support for so many of medical school’s challenges – from studying for exams, trying to figure out long-term plans, having mentors to look up to, and always having someone to talk to about anything. From her diverse set of experiences and involvements, Jennifer has been able to hone into her vision for a medical career.

Jennifer Cortes with the Campana de Salud Team.
Jennifer with the Campana de Salud Health Fair team.

Jennifer’s driving force in studying medicine is knowing that one day she will be able to help people. Currently, she is planning on pursuing a specialty in either neurology or psychiatry because she is fascinated by learning how the brain impacts the mind and how the mind impacts the brain. Furthermore, attending an engineering-based medical school has opened Jennifer up to the endless possibilities in technological innovations that are still undiscovered in the neurology field. There’s never been a doubt in Jennifer’s mind that a career in medicine was her path in life, and little experiences throughout her life have reinforced Jennifer’s desire to be a doctor. “I want to be a physician because I want to help people. And I know that’s a cliché, but even though there are many ways to help people, I can’t imagine doing anything else other than being a doctor,” she said.

Driven by compassion, dedicated to competence

Empowering Jennifer to make the difference she hopes to make is the four-year scholarship that has allowed the inaugural class to attend Carle Illinois tuition-free. She said the scholarship “frees up opportunities for me to chase my interests and passions without worrying about the burden of student debt during medical school and beyond.” This freedom will help Jennifer explore medicine thoroughly and will impact the type of doctor she becomes. Her aspiration is to be a physician whose patients find her both compassionate and competent. “I want to reach my patients wherever they’re at and show them that there is hope. [And], I hope that I can continue to learn as medicine evolves so that I can give my patients the best care.” Jennifer’s humility shines through in her soft but strong kindness and great potential as a future physician-innovator. Her definition of success is to be happy and to have had a life that she is proud of through the impact she’s had on people. A lot of the fulfillment of that goal, she said, will come from being a physician. With her noble aspirations and the fierce passion and courage to pursue them, there’s nothing Jennifer won’t be able conquer moving forward.

The generosity of people like you made it possible for Jennifer and her classmates to attend Carle Illinois with scholarships.