Itsamar Benitez received her first exposure to life as an occupational therapist three years ago in Puerto Rico, surrendering much of her personal life to help her mother recover from a stroke.
She was the family’s main caregiver after the destruction of Hurricane Maria, when her father, a journeyman, was gone for long stretches working on the island’s electric grid.
After coming to Astoria to put her educational aspirations back on track, Benitez, 18, has translated her life experiences into a prestigious summer health care internship through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation at Columbia University in New York City.
“I needed to be more mature than most people my age,” Benitez said of her upbringing.
Benitez grew up in Toa Alta, a suburb of San Juan, Puerto Rico. She was an avid athlete through most of school until three years ago, when her mother, at 43, suffered a stroke. “I dropped everything to take care of her, because my dad works most days,” she said.
In 2013, Benitez volunteered at a summer camp in a school in San Juan for people with disabilities, mostly working in speech and physical therapy. Before the camp, she wanted to be a chef, but she said the experience changed her track in life and showed her what she really wanted to do.
When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in 2017, family flocked to Benitez’s house, which sustained minimal damage and kept power through a generator. But after the storm, Benitez said, she was left to care for much of her family.
After she missed months of her senior year of classes, Benitez learned it would take an extra year to graduate. Instead, she reached out to her great-aunt, Norma Hernandez, of Astoria, about coming to the North Coast, where she had been visiting since 9, to finish school.
“I always wanted to come to the United States and get my education here,” she said. “That was my dream.”
It was hard leaving her parents, Benitez said, but they were on board with her aspirations. She arrived in early January 2018 and began classes at Astoria High School while still learning English. Within five months, she finished her senior year and graduated with the Class of 2018, transferring to Clatsop Community College.
Amy Magnussen, Benitez’s counselor through the college preparatory Talent Search program, told her about the Summer Health Professions Education Program, which accepts 80 college freshmen and sophomores nationwide for an intensive six weeks of classes, clinical rotations and professional development.
“I think both her personal experiences and goals aligned really well with the opportunity,” Magnussen said.
Benitez reached out to her educators on the North Coast for references, including Lynn Jackson, the Astoria High School principal, who lauded her “determination and resiliency to overcome catastrophic circumstances” in writing her a recommendation.
After her internship, Benitez will return to Astoria, where she hopes to graduate from the college in 2020 before studying public health at Pacific University. Only turning 19 in July, Benitez isn’t quite sure where she will end up and whether she’ll go into physical or occupational therapy.
“I do want to go back to Puerto Rico and see how my skills and my knowledge … can help there,” she said.