A Dreamer's Story: Salvador Aguirre, '20, Biology

Chava Aguirre at his KU Med White Coat Ceremony

Eight-year-old Salvador “Chava” Aguirre left Mexico City with his family to escape a financial crisis and find a better life in a country where he didn’t know the language.

But Aguirre says things really didn’t get difficult until high school. And then they didn’t stop.

He and his family crossed the U.S./Mexico border and ended up first in Houston, Texas, then Overland Park, Kansas.

His parents dreamed of just giving their family a better life. Chava dreamed of being a doctor, but as a student at Shawnee Mission West High School in the Kansas City Metro area there wasn’t much Aguirre was allowed to do to reach that.

“I was an undocumented ‘illegal’ immigrant,” he said. “This meant that I could not apply to college, work, or even drive. Many of the most basic and fundamental rights that American citizens receive, I was denied as a consequence of my immigration status.”

Aguirre was already a dreamer, and a determined one at that, but in 2012 he was officially another kind of dreamer when the U.S. introduced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA, aka “Dreamer”) program.

The program just gave him the possibility of going to college; the rest was up to him.

“I knew that in order to attend college I had to receive nothing but perfect grades to obtain scholarships that would secure my education,” he said. “I enrolled in A.P. classes while I was also heavily involved in many extracurricular activities like playing varsity soccer and being a member of the National Honor Society.”

He said he fought through bullying and being looked down on, but his determination paid off as he received a full scholarship to Johnson County Community College. He worked full-time as a bank teller while completing his two years at JCCC.

Aguirre was closer to his ultimate dream, but still had a long way to go.

“I continued to push myself to obtain high grades to attend a four-year university,” he said. “I was blessed to receive another scholarship to attend Rockhurst through my academic excellence. Being a member of Phi Theta Kappa (international honor society) gave me the opportunity to attend Rockhurst.”

That’s when his dream met another roadblock.

While the scholarships helped, they didn’t cover everything, and as a DACA student he was not eligible for any federal financial aid to make up the difference. Making the situation more challenging, Chava’s parents decided to separate and his father was unable to help him financially. He advised Chava to give up on school and start working full-time instead.

Not so fast.

“I took on part-time jobs, and with the help of my mom I was able to fully cover my own tuition without taking any debt,” Chava said.

Aguirre enrolled in Rockhurst as a biology major and continued to put in the work required to fulfill his dream – despite knowing that most medical schools were still not accepting DACA applicants.

In 2019, he graduated from Rockhurst summa cum laude in the honors program. He was also given the Barbara Wynne Award presented to select outstanding biology students.

“Graduating from Rockhurst was one of my greatest academic achievements,” he said. “I am extremely thankful to the entire Rockhurst family for welcoming me and developing me academically.” 

Just when it seemed like he was finally on his way to being a doctor, Aguirre hit another roadblock – and this one looked like the ultimate dream killer.

Aguirre took the MCAT to gain eligibility to enter a medical school, but came up short. He admits he didn’t give himself enough time to study and was overconfident.

The dreamer was distraught.

“Receiving the results was heartbreaking,” he said. “I’m not going to lie; I wanted to give up on my dream.”

Aguirre’s dream started in Mexico City, moved through Houston to Kansas City, overcame significant obstacles in high school, community college, and at Rockhurst, but this seemed like the end.

In moments of doubt, some find strength from within. Chava certainly had throughout his journey. But not this time. This time it came from an unlikely source – his younger sister.

“I started thinking about my younger sister and the example I was setting for her,” he said.

So, he got back to work, knowing she was watching how he dealt with his latest bout with adversity.

“I took a gap year and dedicated myself to studying and preparing for the MCAT – and to help my mother financially,” he said.

Aguirre took the MCAT again, this time with better preparation… and during a pandemic.

As he waited for his results, Aguirre got a break: The dreamer’s dream school, the University of Kansas School of Medicine, announced they’d start admitting DACA students.

“This was the best news I had ever received,” he said.

Then more good news: His MCAT results came in. He passed.

Immediately Aguirre applied to med school with KU as his top choice.

“They interviewed me and accepted me right away,” he said.

A portion of the acceptance notice from KU read, “Dear Salvador Aguirre-Aguirre… It is an honor to offer my personal congratulations on your acceptance. Your selection confirms that you are exceedingly well prepared for the rigors of medical school.”

To say the least.

The dreamer’s determination had shone through the interview process and he is one giant step closer to fulfilling his ultimate goal of becoming a doctor.

“If I had a dime for every time someone doubted me or questioned my aspirations, I would probably be rich by now,” Aguirre said. “Many believed that my dream of becoming a doctor was simply that: a dream. After all, I don’t blame them.

“Who would have believed that a student like me, an immigrant, who was forced to learn a new language, who faced discrimination and bullying growing up, who didn’t have the advantages of being an American citizen, would ever have a shot at becoming a doctor? The answer to that is simple: Only I believed, and lucky for me, that’s all that ever mattered in the end.”

Aguirre had his White Coat Ceremony in July (pictured) and will start med school in Fall 2021, but the example he has set for his sister is ongoing. It’s a message for everyone.

“Like I tell my younger sister often, don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do something,” he said. “Follow your dreams and fight for them because if you don’t, no one will. There were times where I felt alone and many instances that I faced failure, but I never gave up. I never doubted my abilities.

“Our dreams will come true only if we have the courage, strength and determination to pursue them.”

Spoken like a true dreamer.