By Leslie Ridgeway

Some are the first in their families to graduate from college or earn an advanced degree. Some are parents bringing their small children along while they conduct research, or fitting in classes while working full-time. They come from varied backgrounds with one common purpose — to help others with the education they received from the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

Yohualli Balderas-Medina Anaya, Kathleen Ruccione, Claradina Soto and Shantal Villalobos earned degrees at the MS, PhD and MPH commencement ceremonies on May 15 at the USC Health Sciences Campus.

Balderas came to the United States from Mexico City when she was 4 years old. As an undocumented immigrant, Balderas benefited from President Obama’s immigration reform plan, which she said enabled her to earn not only her Master of Public Health degree this year, but her MD from the Keck School in 2012. Her gratitude for her education and joining the Los Angeles regional executive board of the Latino Medical Students Association led her to begin her own mentorship program for high school students whose parents are undocumented immigrants in hopes that the students, too, will be encouraged to follow her path.

Balderas plans a career in family medicine and begins her residency at UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica, in June.

“Graduating from graduate and medical school is an achievement not only for me, but for the larger community and the many students who I represented in crossing that stage,” she said. “My presence gives hope, inspires and proves that our dreams are achievable.”

For Ruccione, earning a PhD in preventive medicine represents the completion of a lifelong dream. A nurse and health educator in the Children’s Center for Cancer and Blood Diseases at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, where she has worked for 40 years, Ruccione waited until her son had graduated from the California School for the Deaf in Riverside, Calif., and had started college before making the dream come true. Being a full-time employee, she was able to take only one or two classes a semester.

Ruccione’s experience working with children who have cancer encouraged her to focus her research on how children are physically and emotionally affected by their treatment. She plans to lead research efforts in survivorship care and adolescent/young adult oncology.

“I believe there is much more that can be done to help young people and families survive — even thrive — after cancer,” she said. “I also believe that research is the way to establish evidence-based practices that are effective. I am excited to devote myself to this work during the next chapter of my life.”

Soto, a full-blooded Native American (her parents are Pueblo and Navajo Indians), was inspired by the Native American culture to choose a focus in tobacco prevention for her life’s work. Tobacco is used in a ceremonial fashion in the American Indian culture, making the development of prevention strategies challenging. With lung cancer being the second leading cancer in this population, Soto wanted to understand their smoking habits, beliefs and attitudes with a goal of creating culturally competent solutions, while earning her doctorate in preventive medicine.

“The fact that this work is being done by a native researcher is huge,” Soto said. “There are not that many Native American PhD’s, and we need more of them. It means a great deal to me to earn this degree, especially for my children. They have traveled with me to many tribal areas throughout California to gather my data, and it means a lot to have them understand what I’m doing. I hope I can help create a better lifestyle and well-being in the American Indian population.”

A challenging background triggered a love of learning for Shantal Villalobos, who earned an MS in global medicine. Growing up economically disadvantaged, she used school as a coping mechanism that paid off in more ways than she could imagine. While an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, Villalobos got involved in a program in which she and other students handed out bag lunches to day laborers in the area. The lunches also included information on human and civil rights. When she came to USC, Villalobos proposed to start a program here but take it a step further by including information about access to health care for the workers.

“I had the opportunity to be a leader and organize ideas at the Keck School,” she said. “It means a lot to me to be able to graduate, and a lot to my family. I have generations of Latinos behind me. I’m doing this for them and myself. My education helped me be stronger, for myself and my family, and I found my calling in global medicine.”

Villalobos’ next stop is the University of Pittsburgh, where she plans to earn a medical degree on her way to becoming a pediatrician.