Know Your Madisonian: Mexican immigrant on path to becoming a pediatrician

Alondra Ponce, 18, recently received a Wisconsin Job Honor Award for overcoming a barrier to employment.

Alondra Ponce came to Madison from Hildalgo, Mexico, at age 7 not knowing her father and unable to speak any English.

As recently as a year ago, after a falling out with her mother, she was homeless and not yet a legal adult.

But the plucky 18-year-old Madison Area Technical College student in training to be a dialysis technician has persevered with some help from her boyfriend’s family and local education and social service programs.

She graduated from the Madison School District’s Middle College program, which in conjunction with the Department of Workforce Development and MATC offers students opportunities to pursue high school and college credits in fields such as manufacturing and health care. She participates in the transitional living program at Briarpatch Youth Services, which helps with food and shelter while she builds credit and sets aside funds for a down payment on an apartment.

Her long-term dream is to become a pediatrician. To get there she hopes to use her bilingual skills to land a good-paying job to help afford medical school.

Ponce recently received a Wisconsin Job Honor Award from Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, which recognizes Wisconsinites who have overcome a barriers to employment.

One key to Ponce’s determination: She begins each day with a mantra she first read last year while drifting between housing: “Today I will do what others won’t so tomorrow I can do what others can’t.”

What was it like coming here from Mexico?

When we got here it was snowing. That was the first thing I saw. In Mexico it doesn’t snow, so it was very shocking, and as a little kid I just wanted to go play in the snow. It was very difficult because I didn’t know English, so I was placed in ESL classes. I was always with the Spanish-speaking students. I was never in the normal classes.

Why did your family come to the United States?

My grandma died when I was 7 years old and my mom had been thinking about coming here because my aunt had been here before. She always thought here in the United States gave better opportunities for education and we would have a more stable place. Back in Mexico you pay to go to school and if you don’t go to school they don’t really care. And most kids end up dropping out of school and going to work. My mom didn’t want that. She wanted us to keep studying so we could get a career.

Why do you want to go into health care?

It all started back when I was in Mexico. My grandma, she died of cancer, and she had diabetes and all that. We couldn’t afford all the care. She died in the house and I was there. Some of my family still doesn’t have the best health care opportunities, like insurance, just being able to pay or being able to have a good hospital to go to. I knew that I wanted to help people. In the beginning I wanted to be a veterinarian. My first job was as a babysitter. I just knew I wanted to work with kids.

How did you acquire the ability to persevere through adversity?

I just grew up with my mom. My dad, he left when I was 2 years old. It was hard for school. In a lot of my ceremonies I was alone. (Other students) would take their parents and I didn’t have my dad and my mom couldn’t come because she was working a lot. I knew I was alone. I had to do this. I had to work hard.

What advice do you have for people facing those kinds of challenges?

Always think about your options. With Briarpatch, there were other shelters, and I kept insisting for me to be accepted into that transitional living program. They were very impressed that I was so well put together. Make the most out of the opportunities that you have.

— Interview by Matthew DeFour

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Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.