I'm on my way

Published: October 08, 2019

Corona’s Julio Salas wants to serve the children who make his hometown one of New York’s most vibrant neighborhoods

Julio Salas, born at Elmhurst Hospital, handballed his way through Queens and the rest of the city as a Junior Tournament trophy winner, attended PS 28 and 14, IS 61 and John Bowne High School, rode the Q 88 and Q30 buses to Queensborough Community College in Bayside – “I always got there early” – and used to mellow in Astoria Park, on the edge of the East River.

“Coming back home to Corona? That would be perfect,” exclaimed the Queensborough graduate and rising pre-med student, on a recent break from Cornell University, in Ithaca.

Julio Salas developed his drive and determination to do better on New York City handball courts. 

[Picture: Julio Salas developed his drive and determination to do better on New York City handball courts. Photo: Leo Correa.]

Getting out of Corona and going to Cornell, 236 miles upstate, isn’t easy. Car, bus or train – it’s not a straight forward path. Nor was Julio’s journey to attend one of the best universities in the country.

“I had applied all over New York City without much luck,” he said on a visit to Queensborough to catch up with favorite staff members and old friends.

The qualified Emergency Medication Technician decided a degree in Health Sciences at Queensborough offered him a good opportunity to advance his career.

“I didn’t realize, at first, the number of opportunities and value a community college would offer me,” Julio volunteered.

[Watch Julio's story in his own words, below.]

“My mother is Colombian. My father is Mexican. I’m the oldest of four children. I was poor, but I knew I had to go to college.”

Term 1 (2016) started.

“I was very nervous when I came to Queensborough. I was a quiet kid.”

And then, “Everything changed.”

Wearing tortoise shell style glasses, a crisp white shirt and a neatly fitted steel-blue suit, Julio confidently explained – over an iced-coffee from the Library Starbucks – that Queensborough helped him channel his emerging obsessions for learning, for becoming self-reliant, for improving his mindset and for expanding his world-view.

Described by grade-school teachers as a smart child who was mature for his age, but shy, Julio placed himself front and center at Queensborough every day, according to Brigitte Tilley, his English 101 Lecturer.

“Julio paid attention and was engaged. He was active and a really supportive leader to his classmates.”

Julio smiles and shifts in his chair.

“Because of Professor Tilley, I liked English for the first time.”

As a Queensborough freshman, Julio scoured the internet endlessly and watched, in his own words, way too many self-help and motivational videos. He Googled everything and – to his great advantage one day – stumbled over America Needs You (ANY), a non-profit organization that provides career development and mentorship to low-income students who are the first in their families to go to college.

“Only 100 men and women were appointed to the ANY two-year fellowship, and my experience was phenomenal.”

The program – a complement to Queensborough’s extensive network of student support programs – focuses on professional skills, career exploration, college completion and personal growth through a series of intense workshops and mentoring from coaches who help young people set goals and stay on track, academically and professionally.

“They pushed us. They said you can do this; others have done it. It was nice being there. Everyone was like me. I started to ask myself, ‘How can I do better, study better, get better and be better?’”

Julio had signed up for Queensborough’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) program. He interned at the College’s Kupferberg Holocaust Center (KHC) and travelled to Austria, under the auspices of CUNY, for a global citizen program.

“ASAP helped me a lot and provided a range of financial, academic and career support and guidance. At KHC I learned about the significance of intolerance and the impact of hate crimes on our community. In Austria, I came to believe that you can do seemingly small, positive things and still have a big impact on the world.”

Medical school came into focus for Julio as he studied biology and chemistry at Queensborough and participated in RIMS, the College’s Research Initiative to Maximize Science Skills.

Dr. Patricia Schneider invited Julio to participate in a research project on Alzheimer’s disease, conducted by colleague Dr. Francisco Villegas, at CUNY’s York College.

Queensborough and America Needs You then encouraged Julio to take the next step.

After missing an application deadline for Columbia University, Julio made a submission to Cornell at the eleventh hour.

“One Saturday, on my way to a handball game, I stopped home and mom said a thin envelope from Cornell had arrived. I opened it, alone, in the living room. I read it again and again and again. I was in shock that I had been admitted and, really, it did not hit me. At the handball game I wondered how it would play out.”

Turns out, it played out well.

Enrolled in Cornell’s Bachelor of Science in Human Development, Julio and a team of undergraduate researchers are working with students from the Syracuse Academy of Science to study the choices that students make to promote brain function, academic achievement and socio-emotional development. In addition, he is investigating the differences in cognitive aging among the young and elderly, as part of another project in the university's Affect and Cognition Laboratory.

“I took Psychology 101 at Queensborough and that opened my eyes and got me more interested in child development.”

This kid from Corona, who for three years cared for and washed puppies at a Flushing pet store and would have gone on to professional handball if there were such a thing, is now determined to do things for kids in Corona, as a pediatrician working for underserved communities.

He will apply for medical school at the conclusion of his undergraduate degree.

“As a boy I never saw or went to a Latino doctor. I want to be there for children in my neighborhood and be more than just a doctor that treats their medical needs.”

A glow – from his bright, broad smile – comes over Julio as he talks about children, their well-being and the promise they each hold to achieve greatness.

“I want to be there for them, whatever they need,” he says, recounting a childhood marked by domestic violence but filled with strong, solid maternal love, encouragement and care.

“I want to tackle everything that comes from being low income and first generation – what kids eat at home, what their family situation is, where they go to school, who their role model is, what they love – because all of those things affect a young person’s health and well-being.”

Just 21, Julio plans to earn an MD, a Master of Public Health, become a professor and write a memoir.  His dream is to be appointed New York City’s Health Commissioner and his lifetime vision is to establish a non-profit, holistic community health center that caters to the needs of underserved communities in Queens.

He and his friends at Cornell are already drawing up plans. They are making space for a handball court.

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Contact:  Michael Donahue or Alice Doyle

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