Resilience in the Face of Adversity
Presidential Scholar’s path may deviate, but her focus is unswerving
By Michelle G. McRuiz
When you meet Daisy Belmares-Ortega (BS ’23), you first notice the kindness that radiates from her. She shows concern for others and listens with care and empathy. And despite the challenges she’s had – struggling in class, feeling out of place, even becoming homeless – adversity has only honed her good qualities.
Daisy has had many successes, too. She completed a nursing program while still in high school. She was accepted into UNM’s BA/MD program. And she was chosen as a UNM Presidential Scholar.
The Presidential Scholarship program is an elite award for New Mexico high school graduates who excel academically and demonstrate leadership and community service. The value of the scholarship is approximately $13,000 per year. Presidential Scholars come from all over the state and are often the first in their families to attend college. Scholars are matched with sponsors – individuals or corporations who make an annual gift to the program or who have created an endowment – and have the chance to meet and get to know one another.
The scholarship removed Daisy’s financial barrier to a college education. It also acknowledged all the hard work she and her family had done to arrive at that point.
Growing up as the daughter of hard-working Mexican immigrants in Albuquerque’s South Valley, Daisy went to a school where she felt the teachers didn’t expect enough. Her middle-school teachers expected much more, but Daisy’s academic muscles were flabby.
“I was so far behind, especially with math,” she says. “I thought I wouldn’t even pass eighth grade.”
Many of her classmates’ families could afford tutors and other assistance. “But in my community, parents worked two or three jobs,” says Daisy. Her parents helped Daisy and her siblings as much as they could, driving her to the nearest library – more than an hour away – and urging her to improve her English skills. But when she compared her reality with that of her peers, Daisy knew her path wouldn’t be easy.
In high school, Daisy did well and completed a practical nursing program, which came in handy later. Her clinical rounds at UNM Hospital showed her how profoundly clinician-patient interactions affect patients’ recoveries. She realized she wanted a career in which she could offer people compassion and set her sights on becoming a doctor who would focus on underserved populations.
There were still many choices to make. Daisy was accepted to UNM’s BA/MD program but turned it down because she also wanted to study engineering. “I thought that maybe my college journey didn’t lie at UNM,” Daisy says.
She decided to pursue aerospace engineering at the University of Southern California, but after a few weeks in Los Angeles, “I realized I had made a huge mistake. My goal was to be in New Mexico, with my community and for my community.” She returned to Albuquerque.
The problem was, she had declined her Presidential Scholarship. On the advice of Terry Mulert, the program director, she wrote a letter to the committee, telling them her family’s story and how going to UNM was her dream.
“If Mr. Mulert hadn’t been kind enough to hear me out,” she says, “there would have been no way I could have gone to college. I’m very thankful to him and to the UNM Foundation.”
With her scholarship reinstated, Daisy enrolled in classes and got a job in a research lab. “I liked research and had stopped thinking about becoming a physician,” she recalls. “But then I found out I could become a physician scientist.” This would allow Daisy to combine hands-on skills with research skills. Now her dream is to combine medicine and mechanical engineering in UNM’s MD/PhD program.
Adversity reared up again suddenly in October 2021. Because of a dangerous situation at home, Daisy had to leave with only a textbook, a journal, and her toothbrush. A friend helped her get into a shelter within a week. Everything she been working toward seemed ready to crumble. “I felt scared and alone and feared that my life was over,” she says.
Fortunately, she kept her research lab job and obtained a second job as a dispensing nurse in the Metropolitan Detention Center’s Recovery Services unit. By working almost 40 hours a week and with the financial security of her Presidential Scholarship, Daisy could afford a small apartment and moved out of the shelter.
Juggling work and studies has been strenuous, but the twist of fate didn’t crush her dreams. “In the shelter, school remained my beacon of hope,” she says.
Daisy is on track to graduate in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and minors in math and chemistry. Then she’ll pursue the MD/PhD path at UNM with much real-life experience behind her.
“The Presidential Scholarship program has been nothing but positive,” Daisy says. And after finishing at UNM, she wants to stay in New Mexico. “I want to work for people I care about.”