First-Generation American Finds Path to PhD Paved With Scholarships

Juan Reyes
Juan Cervantes Reyes

How does a first-generation American born in the state of Washington wind up in the University of Pittsburgh Pharmacy program? The answer is scholarships—both national and local—but the path is full of twists and turns.

Juan Cervantes Reyes was born in Tacoma, Washington and moved with his parents to Caldwell, Idaho when he was seven. It was there that he became the first in his family to graduate high school. He, in his words, “did well enough to qualify for college” but until he landed a scholarship at the College of Idaho, he did not think he would actually be able to attend. His immigrant parents worked hard to provide for Juan and his two younger siblings, but as you might expect money was tight.

“Getting that first scholarship put me in the mindset that I could actually ‘do’ college,” Juan said. “I was lucky, I know people in my hometown who have not had the opportunities I have had.”

“Getting that first scholarship put me in the mindset that I could actually ‘do’ college.” - Juan Cervantes Reyes

Juan still had to take out loans to pay for his education as he pursued his pre-med degree. During his junior year, Juan landed a 10-week summer research scholarship from the prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which could be used to work in labs at a long list of universities, including Harvard, Yale, and Pitt.

He chose the University of Pittsburgh because he was intrigued by the studies underway in Graham Hatfull’s lab on viruses that infect tuberculosis bacteria. It was similar to something Juan had studied earlier in his undergraduate career, and he wanted to learn more.

“Juan was a true delight to have in the lab,” said Dr. Hatfull, Eberly Family Professor of Biotechnology, University of Pittsburgh Department of Biological Sciences. “He worked hard and really enjoyed the interactive lab environment. It was terrific to watch him learn and to succeed.”

The experience made Juan start to question his decision to go to med school. After having been exposed to the workings of a major research institution and the collaborative nature of the Pitt faculty, he thought his future might lie in research. He was planning to take a “gap year” to make a few dollars and make a decision about his future when Graham invited him back for another summer in the lab.

Following the second 10-week summer program, Juan was offered a job as a lab assistant and that solidified his desire to focus on getting a PhD. Yet, he still had a desire to directly interact with and impact patients, which drew him to the Pitt doctor of Pharmacy degree program. He applied and was accepted, but returning to school came with a cost.

“My parents always worry about the money it takes to pay for school, but I tell them it’s an investment in myself; it’s for my future and my career,” Juan said. “But there is a limit to the total student loan debt you can accumulate, so I needed scholarship support.”

David Matelan
Pitt Pharmacy class of 2021.

Juan was awarded the John P. and Constance Curran Scholarship as he entered the program. Dr. Curran earned his Master’s in Pharmacy from Pitt in 1968 and his PhD in 1971. He and his wife Constance established the fund in 1999.

“John and I created the scholarship with an eye on helping students that could not otherwise afford an education,” said Constance. “It is extremely gratifying to know that we are helping Juan to achieve his dreams.”

After starting the program, Juan landed a job in the pharmacy of the Veterans Affairs Health Care System in Pittsburgh, which gives him the patient interaction he craves.

“It’s about the experience of working in a real pharmacy with real patients, not the pursuit of a paycheck,” Juan said. “The scholarship takes the weight of worrying about how I will afford school off my shoulders.”

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