“Always have a Plan A. And a Plan B. And also a Plan C.”
That advice from FSC education counselor Ken Grotell has stuck with Mario Mejia. And it served him well, he says, as he prepared to graduate from SUNY Upstate Medical University in May 2022 and enter the professional world as a doctor of physical therapy.
Mejia met Grotell when he was a part of FSC’s TRIO Program—a selective program for first generation students who may need extra support to stay in school, finish a degree, and pursue graduate study. Grotell’s words struck a chord, because Mejia’s life has always been a bit out of his hands. To get where he is, he’s had to rely on others, make and remake expectations, and hope for the best.
A Dreamer’s Dreams
His story begins in high school, when Mejia ruptured his ACL, a ligament in his knee, playing football. It was during his rehabilitation that he became interested in the science of physical therapy. As he learned more about what it might take to pursue advanced study and work in a health care setting, he became dispirited.
Mejia was an undocumented immigrant, brought to New York from Honduras by his parents when he was just five years old. And though he considered himself an American and Hempstead, New York, was the only home he could truly remember, he knew his status could make it difficult to pursue higher education or a career in medicine.
But in the summer of 2012, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration policy came online, allowing people like Mejia, who were brought to the country as children, to avoid deportation and obtain work permits.
Suddenly, a world of possibilities lay before Mejia: college, graduate school, and becoming a doctor.
A Helping Hand
But still, there were certain paths that were unavailable to Mejia as a Dreamer. DACA recipients couldn't apply for federal financial aid, including student loans and grants.
“My family is incredibly hardworking, but there was no way we could have afforded college, let alone physical therapy school,” he says. That’s where the Tortora Sillcox Family Foundation came in.
In 2015, Mejia received a full academic scholarship from the Foundation to attend Nassau Community College, and two years later he was one of six scholarship recipients to attend FSC as part of the inaugural Sillcox Scholars Program.
FSC was a perfect fit, Mejia says. “It was by far the best option for me. I was working full time, living at home, and it was close by. Most of all, it met all the criteria I needed to go on to PT school.”
Now that’s he’s near the end of a seven-year educational journey made possible by philanthropy, Mejia is looking forward to a time when he can give back. His first goal is to start a foundation to help students like him.
“I was only able to achieve what I have because someone believed in me and sponsored me on my path to becoming a doctor,” he says.
Mejia's second goal is to open a nonprofit physical therapy clinic in his home country of Honduras. For the moment, though, he is focused on the finish line: graduation.