At its annual awards ceremony, Loyola University Chicago’s Department of Student Diversity and Multicultural Affairs presented Dr. Mark Kuczewski, a resident of Forest Park for the last 15 years, with the Transformative Education Award. The award recognizes “a faculty member who has demonstrated a commitment to student development and has gone beyond his or her administrative role to address the needs and concerns of underrepresented students.” Kuczewski is the director of the Neiswanger Institute for Bioethics and Public Health and chair of the Department of Medical Education at Loyola University Chicago’s Stritch School of Medicine.

In 2000, Loyola recruited Kuczewski, a graduate of Duquesne University. With a PhD in philosophy, he said, “It was a natural pairing. The Jesuit values of social justice and dignity for every person resonates with me a great deal.”

His recognition by Diversity and Multicultural Affairs can be traced to a series of events beginning a few years ago. 

“Exposure to undocumented immigrants and families of mixed immigration status both in the hospital setting and in my personal life,” he said, fostered his interest in the struggles of undocumented immigrants in the U.S., particularly with health systems.

His curiosity was well known around Loyola’s campus and in 2011 a forwarded email from a professor at Loyola Marymount University, a Jesuit school in California, arrived in Kuczewski’s inbox. The email described a bilingual student with a high grade point average, an impressive service record and aspirations of attending medical school. There was just one problem. The student was a so-called “DREAMer,” an undocumented immigrant who meets requirements enumerated in the Dream Act, a federal piece of legislation originally proposed in 2001 and cosponsored by Senator Dirk Durbin (D-IL). The legislation “never passed but it gave these young people their moniker,” Kuczewski said.

To qualify as a DREAMer, an individual must have entered the U.S. before the age of 16, lived here continuously for five years, obtained a high school diploma or its equivalent, and refrained from committing any crimes. Although a model student and a DREAMer, the Marymount professor said he was concerned his pupil would be barred from a career in medicine.

“There is no law against educating a DREAMer,” Kuczewski explained. “The problem was once she got her M.D., she would not be able to go on to her next stage of training, her residency. That is actually a job. They are employed by the institution where they are doing their training. The DREAMer at that point could not get a work authorization. And so we were in a quandary because we did not want to see this wonderful talent wasted.”

The situation was not unique. As Johana Mejias, a first-year Stritch student and native of Venezuela told the Review, “I was part of the pre-med group on campus at the University of Colorado, and I constantly received emails about internship programs, traveling volunteer opportunities, [and] paid research opportunities, but I couldn’t apply to any because I wasn’t eligible.” The 2011 graduate of the University of Colorado at Boulder said, “Nonetheless, I would always read through the emails, hopeful that some kind of opportunity would not require status eligibility.”

Mejias completed her double major in Molecular, Cellular, Developmental Biology and Psychology Neuroscience before President Obama announced his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in June 2012. The executive action grants qualifying individuals the ability to apply for Social Security numbers, secure work permits and avoid deportation.

Loyola, with its longstanding commitment to social justice, has a history of attracting first generation college attendees. Sensing an opportunity to “recommit to our roots” Kuczewski, with the endorsement of university leadership, advocated altering the admissions policy. 

After confirming some DACA details, he recalled, “We aggressively went forward at that point changing our policy and becoming the first medical school in the nation to actually openly welcome applications from DREAMers.” 

Loyola’s status as a private institution allowed the administration to “act decisively,” he said. “There was no oversight of the state Board of Regents that might have to kick it around for months or years. The state legislature wasn’t involved, anything like that.” Kuczewski remarked.

Loyola’s pioneering policy provided students like Mejias the long-awaited opportunity they needed. She remembers the day in 2013 when she received an email describing a summer internship program focused on underserved communities and health disparities. “I went to the summer program link on the Loyola Stritch website, [and] I noticed that the eligibility said accepting DACA status! I froze,” she said. “No words can describe that moment.”

Mejias completed the six-week summer program and said she “absolutely fell in love with the medical school,” Soon, she applied for admission to Stritch and was accepted. The news came on her father’s birthday. 

“We all cried in happiness. My dream was now on its path to becoming a reality,” Mejias recalled.

Kuczewski is careful to note that students like Mejias “compete on a level playing field. There is no priority given to them. They qualify for admission, fair and square.” These individuals, he noted, “bring those added values — bilingual, bicultural. They are very well suited to serve many populations that are underserved currently in our state. They are able to educate their peers, too. They bring diversity to a medical class. Other students learn from their peers who are from different communities. We feel like our whole first-year class has benefited.”

Gaining admission is only one obstacle for aspiring physicians. Nearly every medical student also faces difficulties financing their extensive educations. For most, federal student loans are an option. For undocumented students, that type of aid is unavailable. However, Loyola found a workable solution. The school partnered with the Illinois Finance Authority (IFA), a state agency focused on economic development. 

“They worked with us to create a loan program for these students,” Kuczewski said. “It is modeled on public health service loans … students get an interest free loan as long as after they graduate medical school and finish their residency training, they serve an underserved area in the state of Illinois for four years.” The loan program is available to any dental or medical school in Illinois.

Mejias, along with the six other undocumented students, are now thriving at Stritch. Despite a challenging curriculum, Mejias is grateful for the opportunity. 

“There is never a day … that I haven’t taken a moment to think about my whole life journey and how wonderful of an opportunity it is to attend medical school,” she said. Kuczewski praised the “resilience, motivation, and incredible drive” of the inaugural class, qualities he believes will “clearly will make them into fantastic physicians.”

The university plans to double DACA enrollment numbers in the next academic year. Kuczewski and his colleagues continue to lobby other schools at both the state and national levels. 

“I am inspired by these young people,” he said, to watch them flourish and blossom in an environment where they are supported by the community and recognized for who they are. … I feel so privileged to be a part of that.”