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‘I don’t want any limitations’: Former Above and Beyond recipient graduates from Winona State, sets sights on medical school

May 9, 2019

When Juan Rojas-Cabrera started college, he had already taken leaps and bounds to overcome a rough patch in his past.

The Vista Hermosa, Mexico, native, then a recent graduate of St. Charles High School, had pulled his grades up to straight As, left the crowd that had encouraged him to use drugs and reconnected with his family before heading off to his next adventure at Winona State University.

Now, as that chapter closes and another is about to begin, he’s ready to leap even farther.

“It seems like it was yesterday, me getting my stuff and packing to get on the shuttle to get onto campus,” Rojas-Cabrera said.

Tomorrow, he will become the first in his family to earn a college degree.

Rojas-Cabrera was the 2015 Above and Beyond honoree from St. Charles, even then describing his plans to break into the medical field. The nursing major will spend the next two years researching deep brain stimulation in the department of neurosurgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, before pursuing medical school.

His success in college is the result of a mix of personal determination, meaningful connections with WSU staff and unwavering support from loved ones, especially his parents, Graciela Cabrera and Juan Rojas-Gasca.

“I have this thing where I have to call my mom, even if it’s for, like, 30 seconds, every night, just to see how they’re doing,” he said.

Four years ago, he thought college might change his relationship with his family, make them less close, because he would be away at school. If anything, he said, it has brought them closer.

On top of taking challenging pre-med classes, leading WSU’s Latin American student organization, playing intramural soccer and working in the school’s inclusion and diversity office, Rojas-Cabrera still returned home often to help out on the farm that had employed his father in the 15-plus years since the family came north from Mexico.

That changed last summer, when the farm as they knew it closed. Luckily, Rojas-Cabrera acknowledged, his father still has work there. But it was a big departure from what he’d known and loved growing up.

Spending time back in St. Charles also allowed him to stay connected with his three younger siblings, two sisters and a brother.

When he was on campus, though, he kept his nose to the grindstone, spending hours in his room studying when he could have been out with friends. Though his parents were nothing but supportive, he still felt the unique pressure of being first in his family to accomplish a feat like this.

“My first day of classes, my dad texted me (words of encouragement),” Rojas-Cabrera remembered. “I knew my parents had all this trust in me, and they believed I could achieve what I wanted to. That just put more stress on, because I didn’t want to mess up.”

He also met students who didn’t have that stress to deal with.

“Some of them wouldn’t go to class because they were like, ‘My parents are paying for this,’ or, ‘I’ve already got something set up for after college,’” he said, “Me, I couldn’t take things for granted because me being there took so much time and effort. They were more laid back, whereas I couldn’t be.”

Rojas-Cabrera relied on professors and staff at the inclusion and diversity office for financial and career guidance, stepping out of his comfort zone to go above and beyond to make connections.

But it wasn’t just empty networking. Creating meaningful relationships is about what you can give back to the person offering you advice, he said, even if it’s just giving them your full attention.

“You’re surrounded by so many intellectual people that you’re bound to find (genuine bonds),” he said. “It’s just about actively pursuing them.”

The senior will take that lesson to his research program and beyond, where he someday hopes to focus on rural health. Growing up in a semi-rural area like St. Charles, and his earliest years spent in Vista Hermosa, a village hard-hit by poverty, he saw first-hand that those communities often lack proper health care resources.

Despite the fact that his trajectory for professional success already looks clear, Rojas-Cabrera said what’s most important for him in the next decade is to see others succeeding — especially his family.

“I don’t want any limitations. I don’t want (my siblings) to think things are unattainable,” he said.

And he especially doesn’t want to forget the incredible feat his parents, both of whom only made it through elementary school, pulled off in sending him to college and encouraging him every step of the way.

“They’re pushing me to achieve something that to me, at least, it seemed impossible. Somehow, they knew there was potential,” Rojas-Cabrera said. “I don’t know where they get all the support, pieces of advice, all this energy to keep pushing, but they have it … it’s mind-blowing.”

Keep pushing — that’s the message he wants to share, even since high school. Through tough times, through financial hardships, through a difficult past that shapes your future, and no matter where your family comes from.

“Things get better. It takes time, it could take days, it could take months or years, but things do get better,” he said, “if you want them to. That’s the biggest thing.”