When Stephanie Contreras, was a little girl, her parents — muscles aching from physically demanding embroidery factory work — would ask her to walk gently on their backs, working out the weariness that had accumulated throughout the day.

That experience was among the first to lead Contreras, now 17, to want a career in which she can help alleviate other people’s pain.

This potential career path came into clearer focus a few years later when her younger sister developed Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes a person’s body to begin attack their own nerves.

With both her parents working long hours at the factory, Contreras was the one to drive her little sister to physical therapy.

“I got to talk one-on-one with the physical therapist, and she talked about the profession,” Contreras said. “I really appreciated that physical therapists take the time to get to know the patient beyond the disease.”

Contreras is now a senior at Orthopaedic Hospital Medical Magnet High School, a medically themed high school open to all Los Angeles Unified School District students.

Throughout high school, she says she’s tried to take advantage of every opportunity to be able to be the first in her family to attend college. During freshman year, she joined the Medical Counseling, Organizing and Recruiting Program (Med-COR), a partnership between her high school and USC that aims to increase the pool of high school students of color committed to the pursuit of health professional careers. The program offers students the opportunity to be tutored by current USC students, to receive preparation for their SAT exams and to attend workshops that give these often first-generation college students a better understanding of the college admission process.

“My parents didn’t have the opportunity to study beyond the ninth grade,” Contreras said. “So I always needed someone to answer some of these questions. I would ask my mom, ‘How do I navigate through college applications and financial aid,’ and she would say, “Mija, no sé; I don’t know.’ ”


Eerily similar backgrounds

Like Contreras, Natalia Barajas, a doctor of physical therapy student in the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy, grew up in a low-income household, with a factory-working father. And like Contreras, Barajas, also a first-generation college student, couldn’t rely on parental advice when applying to college.

“My parents are extremely supportive,” Barajas said. “But they don’t know what they don’t know, and they can’t help where they can’t help.”

Barajas found her way, though, earning her bachelor’s degree in kinesiology from Whittier College in 2011 and a master’s degree in exercise science from California University of Pennsylvania in 2019. Through the years, she has worked as a personal trainer and physical therapy aide. Today, she’s a second-year physical therapy student at USC.

She’s used her experience as a first-generation college student to help other students navigating the admissions process for the first time. She’s also currently the vice president of the USC Physical Therapy Multicultural Leadership Alliance, which aims to raise awareness about physical therapy as a profession in underrepresented minority communities.

When Barajas received an e-mail asking for graduate students to mentor high schoolers in the Med-COR program, she jumped at the chance.

“Between my own experience and knowing that these kids are underserved, I knew this was something I absolutely wanted to get involved with.” Barajas said. “One of my philosophies is that those who are educated have a responsibility to help others who are less fortunate.”

Barajas was paired with Contreras, and after their first discussion, the two realized they had eerily similar backgrounds.

“Her parents were also embroidery laborers,” Contreras said. “And she also walked on her parents’ backs to alleviate that stress. I thought that was only a thing I did.”


Homework on the factory floor

As part of the mentorship program, Contreras and Barajas meet via Zoom at least once a month. They also stay in touch with quick e-mail and text updates, Barajas said.

“During our meetings, it’s an open conversation,” Contreras said. “She’s giving me life advice, academic advice and just really giving me support and genuine friendship.”

Having someone like Barajas has been even more essential this past year, with the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. Contreras’ father lost his embroidery factory job in March 2020, throwing the family into financial crisis.

“Being low income, my family struggled to pay the bills, even before the COVID-19 pandemic made our family unemployed,” she said.

Contreras’ parents do not speak English, so she reached out to various community organizations to sign them up for food and rental assistance. She also began holding garage sales and selling Tupperware. The story was recently chronicled in an L.A. Times article.

When the family continued to come up short on the bills, Contreras picked up extra shifts at the factory where her mother works — a job she still holds, sneaking homework and college essays onto the factory floor to do when work slows. While it might have been understandable for Contreras to lose focus of the future when facing acute financial problems in the present, she never did — something that Barajas, who had to forge her own way, can relate to.

“I think it’s just adversity, like going through hard times and just becoming used to having to fight through things,” she said. “That process of just kind of ‘Oh, nothing has been easy, so I just have to work a little harder’ definitely plays out in your favor during these times.”


A big role model

As graduation nears, Contreras is eagerly looking ahead to college. She has already been accepted to USC, California State University, Los Angeles, California State University, Long Beach, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, San Diego State University and the University of California, Los Angeles, and is still awaiting word from Stanford and a few other universities.

Wherever she lands, Contreras admits it was seeing someone like her, succeeding in school and reaching for their dreams that kept her going.

“I’m working on improving myself, and Natalia is a big representation for me that if you work hard, it will pay off,” Contreras said. “She’s definitely a person I admire, and I really do hope to keep a connection with her, so hopefully one day I could say, ‘Hey, I’m in physical therapy school, and you were definitely a big role model for me because I saw you there and I saw it was possible.’ ”

— John Hobbs