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Undergraduate Accepted to Eight Top Medical Schools

UC Riverside Undergraduate Student Accepted to Eight Top Medical Schools

An Iraq war veteran, Sergio Alfaro is set upon reaching his goal of becoming a physician

(May 14, 2010)

Sergio Alfaro is an undergraduate at UC Riverside.  Photo credit: Elizabeth Tiglao. (More photos below.)Enlarge

Sergio Alfaro is an undergraduate at UC Riverside. Photo credit: Elizabeth Tiglao. (More photos below.)

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – UC Riverside undergraduate Sergio Alfaro spent his high school years in Maywood, Calif., and later in Burbank, Calif., unmotivated, undisciplined and unsure about what he wanted to do or be in life.

But that confusion, which he attributes partly to teenage angst, gave way to clarity when, as a soldier training to be a medic at Advanced Individual Training in Fort Sam Houston, Texas, he worked in a mock mass casualty situation, treating “patients” for injuries ranging from impairment to the eye, to a collapsed lung, to intestinal evisceration. The experience, which brought Alfaro face-to-face with life and death, helped him choose medicine for a career.

Today, Alfaro, an Iraq war veteran, confronts a different kind of problem: Having gained acceptance to eight of the top medical schools in the country – Harvard University, Duke University, Stanford University, University of Southern California, UC San Francisco, UCLA, UC Irvine and the UCR/UCLA Thomas Haider Program in Biomedical Sciences – Alfaro must soon make up his mind about which school to attend.

“At UCR, I studied neuroscience to better understand the post-traumatic stress disorder I struggle with from time to time,” Alfaro, 27, said. “I know now I want to be a physician. But to come to this point, I had to do a lot of soul-searching and take baby steps toward achieving the goal I set for myself.”

Several faculty and staff at UCR helped Alfaro along the way. Paul Larsen, an associate professor of biochemistry, whose class Alfaro attended in 2008, advised him not to sell himself short.

“As part of his transition from an exceptionally stressful environment of serving in the military as a battlefield medic to being an undergraduate student, Sergio struggled with motivation and confidence, which resulted in him struggling early in his academic career,” Larsen said. “Part of this arose from a self belief that he wasn’t good enough or that he didn’t belong in the university. I had extensive conversations with him about this, his career goals and how these fit into his military background. I believe our discussions helped him learn to approach whatever comes his way, either success or failure, with humility and dignity. By taking this approach, Sergio has reached for the stars with no fear of rejection.”

Todd Fiacco, an assistant professor of cell biology and neuroscience, attributes Alfaro’s success in his medical school applications to his grade point average (nearly 3.9), and to a “very unique, extremely moving, and well-written essay” for his personal statement in his applications.

“Sergio is an excellent student who always places his schoolwork at the top of his list of priorities,” said Fiacco, in whose lab Alfaro did research related to neurological processes that take place in the hippocampus component of the brain during epileptic seizures. “I don't think that a lot of students do this to the level that Sergio does. I felt confident enough based on his track record in his abilities to have him perform challenging patch-clamp experiments in my laboratory - not something I would consider doing except for the most promising undergraduate students.”

Alfaro also counts Albert Chevez, the director of the Medical and Health Careers Program (MHCP) at UCR, as a mentor. Chevez first got to know Alfaro at SUMMA, a premedical conference they attended at Stanford University School of Medicine in 2008.

“I was immediately impressed by Sergio’s maturity, perseverance, and felt a strong appreciation for the sacrifices he has endured, especially in serving his country,” Chevez said. “He has a profound appreciation for life and death that most people will never comprehend in a lifetime because he has been in the real trenches. His gratitude for a chance to live and accomplish his goals is in honor of those that will never have that opportunity. I’ve had the pleasure to work with many impressive students over the years, and Sergio stands out as one of the rare, special ones.”

Alfaro is the seventh of nine children, and a first-generation college student. He joined the military when he was 17 years old, straight out of high school. After serving as a medic for four and a half years (2000-2004) in the Army, he was “stop-lossed” when he was in Iraq. Upon his return, he joined the Air National Guard to satisfy his obligation to the military for one more year, and began college soon after that. Before joining UCR in 2007, he was a student at Riverside Community College.

Of the six sons in the Alfaro family, four were in the military (including Sergio). Two of Sergio’s brothers attended local colleges; a third brother attended a college in Utah; and a fourth brother attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Of Sergio’s three sisters, one is a physician and graduated from Harvard University; a second sister graduated from UC Irvine; and a third sister is attending Princeton University. The parents did not study beyond high school.

Q & A with Sergio Alfaro:

What challenges do you anticipate in medical school and how will you overcome them?

Mostly the volume of information I will need to absorb. But I tell myself I have been through worse. So I am looking forward to medical school.

What is the secret of your success?

None of this has hit me yet. Maybe it will hit me when I wear my white coat in medical school! I guess people always try to live life to have every moment be the happiest possible. But you don’t know happiness until you’ve been at the bottom of the barrel and looking straight up. Every time I look to push myself up, I recall my experiences as a kid and in the military. I know I got a second chance at life when I came back home from the Army. That helps motivate me.

Any advice for other students?

Get a mentor. The mentor could be a faculty member or an older student. Talk to people who have gone through the processes you’re struggling with, seek their advice. Don’t accept “I don’t know.” Because you do know. So enquire into it. Pick out what you like, what fires you, and work from there. In life, we have to do a lot of hard work to get to do what we want to do.

Anyone else you would like to acknowledge?

Yes, Captain John Tipton, my commander in Iraq. He lost his life there only a couple of weeks before he was to return to the U.S. “You can do more, Alfaro!” he would yell when he’d see me lift weights in the gym. He serves as a reminder to me that this life we have is very precious. Truly, it’s because of men and women like him that I want to be able to say moments before I die that I was either on my way to doing what I want in life or that I have done everything I ever wanted to do.
Sergio Alfaro is an undergraduate at UC Riverside.  Photo credit: UCR Strategic Communications.Enlarge

Sergio Alfaro is an undergraduate at UC Riverside. Photo credit: UCR Strategic Communications.

Sergio Alfaro (left) in conversation with Todd Fiacco, an assistant professor of cell biology and neuroscience at UC Riverside.  Photo credit: UCR Strategic Communications.Enlarge

Sergio Alfaro (left) in conversation with Todd Fiacco, an assistant professor of cell biology and neuroscience at UC Riverside. Photo credit: UCR Strategic Communications.

The University of California, Riverside ( is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

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