Los Angeles Mission College
13356 Eldridge Avenue • Sylmar, CA 91342 • 818.364.7600

NEWS RELEASE                                        

August 26, 2004

Alum Says Mission College Was Gate to Medical School

By Eduardo Pardo

SYLMAR – When Juan Carlos Pelayo enrolled in Mission College in 1996, all he wanted to do was take and pass a physiology class. If he did, he might be able to move up from his job as a licensed vocational nurse to a more secure and better-paying job as a registered nurse.

Pelayo could not have imagined then that, eight years later, he would be on the verge of graduating from the prestigious UC San Francisco School of Medicine with a career as a surgeon before him.

Juan Carlos Pelayo during rotations at UCSF School of Medicine

He credits his experience at Mission College and several instructors with helping him realize his potential.

"I was a horrible high school student, not really very focused," he recalled. "I think the idea of being a doctor was maybe somewhere in the back of my mind, but it just seemed so unrealistic."

A much more realistic goal after high school, he thought, was to go to occupational school and become an LVN. When he signed up for Mike Reynolds’ physiology class at Mission College, Pelayo saw it as a short-term step that would enhance his nursing career. But Reynolds saw something else.

"He took a test for me," recalled Reynolds, "and his answers were so superior, I pulled him aside and asked him about his plans. He told me about his nursing goals, and I said he should definitely aim higher – at least a university degree, for starters."

Pelayo took the advice to heart, partly because he discovered a fascination with biology. Soon, his one-class deal with Mission College evolved into a full scientific program that included chemistry, physics, and mathematics. Two years after enrolling, he earned an Associate’s degree in biology and transferred to California State University, Northridge, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in molecular biology in 2001. He was admitted to a slew of medical schools, including his first choice, UCSF.

Sitting now in a student housing apartment in the Twin Peaks area of San Francisco, cradling his six-month-old son Alejandro, Pelayo still has deep feelings for Mission College.

"I can’t emphasize enough the importance of mentors and role models," he said. "I didn’t really have any in high school. My parents hardly had any schooling in Mexico so they were happy just to see me graduate from high school. They couldn’t really advise me about college."

At Mission, he found mentors aplenty in instructors Maria Fenyes, Reynolds, Bob Smazenka, and Richard Rains, whom he describes as demanding teachers but also individuals who counseled him to look to bigger goals beyond the classroom.

Pelayo has just embarked on the complicated, often tense process of applying for a residency. His preferred location is California. In fact, he would like to remain in the Bay Area, where wife Marisol Luna (also a former Mission College student) is a nurse at San Francisco General Hospital. His preferred specialization is surgery – general at first but perhaps leading to more specialized surgery that involves bio-research, such as transplant or vascular surgery.

Pelayo believes high school students should try to go directly to university "…if they’re ready and if they have family support." In truth, many are not ready, either academically or socially for lack of maturity.

"If you need time to figure things out, including who you are and what you want from college, then a community college is the best way to go," he said.

This is the advice that Pelayo gave to Bay Area middle and high school students as part of an educational outreach program that he was part of during his first two years of medical school. He would take anatomic models (heart, lungs, brain, etc.) and explain their functions to the students. The bigger goal, he said, was to counter the under-representation of minorities in medicine and interest young students in the field.

Pelayo may never know if he turned any of those students toward medicine, but it’s possible. After all, he’d be the first to tell you that a little mentoring can go a long way toward changing someone’s life.