March 14, 2007 - (BRONX, NY) - A lot of people dream of winning the lottery. When it happened to Maday Gonzalez in 1999, though, she didn't need to think about how or where to spend millions because there was no money involved. Instead, Maday, who is now a first-year student at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, had won her freedom through a U.S. State Department visa lottery.
Initially, winning the visa lottery created a dilemma for the native of Cuba. Should she give up her dream of becoming a doctor in exchange for another dream - living in the "land of liberty" just an ocean away from her island homeland? Compounding the difficulty of this decision was the fact that, at the time, Maday was in her second year of medical school at the Higher Institute of Medical Sciences -- where she received straight "As" with the exception of a "B" in Physiology III.
The visa lottery is the only legal avenue through which a Cuban resident can leave Cuba and move to the United States. "Since I never win anything, I hadn't really expected anything to come of it," she says of her computer entry selection. "I was so thrilled when they contacted me, because I had always wanted to come to the U.S."
In deciding to make the move, Maday left behind her parents and a younger sister. "My parents were very supportive of my coming here, because they had always wanted to move here. But the opportunity was never there."
She also determined she would abandon her aspirations to become a doctor, believing it impossible. "I always felt that the two dreams were exclusive of each other," she says. "In Cuba, I didn't have freedom, but I could get an education and become a doctor. To me, the U.S. represented freedom, but the fact that I spoke no English made my dream of becoming a doctor in the U.S. a dream only."
So, Maday arrived in the U.S. prepared to start an entirely new life. She moved in with an aunt (the only relative she had in the States), got a job at Sears, and began attending English as a Second Language classes. Remarkably, in spite of her still-limited English, she quickly rose to top sales associate in the cosmetics department.
At the urging of her boyfriend, Maday eventually enrolled in college, attending Florida Atlantic University, where she gained greater proficiency with her English while earning a bachelor's degree, summa cum laude. (In Cuba, college and medical school are combined, so she had not earned the degree there.)
While tackling a complete course load each semester, she continued working full time at night, since she was supporting herself and her mother and younger sister back in Cuba. (Her father passed away suddenly in 2003, at a time when Maday could not return home for his funeral due to the terms of her visa.)
When her boyfriend learned that she had been in medical school in Cuba, he encouraged Maday to pursue her dream again. So, during her senior year at FAU, she reduced her work hours so that she could prepare for the MCATs (the Medical College Admission Test). She was accepted at eight medical schools, located in Florida, Boston, and New York, including the Albert Einstein College of Medicine - and suddenly her dream of becoming a doctor was again possible.
"What I liked most about Einstein was that I felt really comfortable during my interviews and in my interactions with the students," says Maday, who received a scholarship to attend the medical school, located in the Bronx, New York. "Everyone seemed very happy, which wasn't the case at some other schools I had visited."
Now, as she lives both of her dreams simultaneously, Ms. Gonzalez uses a special keepsake given to her by her father before she left home. "It's a fountain pen that he bought when I was just a year old. He brought it home and told my mother that it was for me when I became a doctor. Only, he never told me about the pen, and while he supported my interest in science, he never pushed me to become a doctor. It is my special connection to him."
This summer, Ms. Gonzalez will carry that connection further when she takes part in a summer research project in the laboratory of Dr. Ramon Brugada, in Montreal, Canada. She will study Brugada's syndrome, a form of sudden death that she believes may be the cause of her own father's death. She also awaits word of when her mother and her sister might join her in the States, since she petitioned for her mother to come here after becoming a U.S. citizen in December 2006. Mrs. Gonzalez must receive "liberation" permission from the Cuban government in addition to getting a visa before she can leave Cuba. (As a minor, Ms. Gonzalez's sister would be included in their mother's visa.)