Meet Alexander Cantres González, second-year PharmD student from Río Grande, Puerto Rico. Here, Alexander shares some of the challenges his community faced after Hurricane Maria in 2017, why he decided to move to California to pursue pharmacy school, and his advice to prospective students.
Tell us a bit about your life in Puerto Rico prior to attending USC.
I grew up in a lower-middle-class family in Río Grande, Puerto Rico, with my mother, father and older brother. My mother teaches preschool students, and my father works for the government.
I completed my bachelor’s degree in integrative biology from the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras. My hometown is 20 miles away from the university, and each morning my parents would drop me off early before they went to work. I would spend my whole day at school and then go back home to sleep.
When I was attending school from 2016 to 2021, Puerto Rico faced Hurricane Maria in 2017, a series of earthquakes, protests, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools would shut down for weeks due to safety concerns or power outages. Some professors didn’t want to delay our learning and would hold classes outside and we would use flashlights to see what we were writing. We made it work somehow.
How did you become interested in pharmacy?
I always knew I wanted to become a healthcare provider. When I was 12 years old, I fractured my thumb when a car door was accidentally shut on my hand and I was rushed to the hospital. I was fascinated with the way the healthcare providers cured my finger. The doctors and nurses were so friendly and compassionate, and that’s when I knew I wanted to go into healthcare.
What’s frustrating is that pharmacists in Puerto Rico are not considered healthcare providers. That is why so many people in Puerto Rico who want to pursue pharmacy will move out of the island to seek better educational opportunities and income.
Were you affected by Hurricane Maria in 2017?
Yes. It took Puerto Rico a very long time to recover. When the U.S. came to distribute food and other amenities to the people of Puerto Rico, wealthy communities were the first to receive help. Many people who initially survived the hurricane passed away shortly after because they did not have access to medical supplies. Thankfully, my mother prepared for the hurricane and we had a good amount of food and other supplies. I remember volunteering and helping donate necessities to people in my community because the support was desperately needed.
You’ve been living in California and attending USC for over a year now. What has this transition been like for you?
I’ve had so many opportunities here that I never would have gotten if I had stayed in Puerto Rico. I’ll never forget the day I found out about USC Mann. My principal investigator at the time helped me research pharmacy schools, and USC Mann was the first university to pop up in the search results.
I remember how happy I was to get accepted into USC. Los Angeles is very diverse, and I have been exposed to so many more cultures here than back home. So, I’m not only growing professionally, but I’m also experiencing a lot of personal growth as I expose myself to new experiences and opportunities.
Through each hands-on opportunity I take, I learn more about my interests. I am currently a pharmacy intern at Mercy Pharmacy Group in South Los Angeles, and I have really enjoyed it so far. I work closely with patients by providing vaccinations, medication therapy management, patient counseling and more. The Spanish-speaking patients I care for have a lot of respect for me and often personally seek me to help them. It’s nice to be acknowledged as a healthcare provider by people in the community.
Lastly, I’ve developed many close friendships with my classmates, especially Evans Pope, Luis Larios and Daniella del Toro. They’ve all helped me in so many ways: academically, professionally and personally.
What advice do you have for prospective students who want to move out of their hometown for better opportunities?
I am a proud Puerto Rican, and I am so grateful to have the opportunity to attend USC to become a healthcare provider and help others. I would tell incoming students to follow their dreams. Although the journey may be difficult, it is definitely worth it. Network, focus on your goals, meet new people, experience new things, be open to everything, don’t compare yourself to others, and don’t let anyone or anything stop you from achieving your full potential.