Karen Carbajal and Josefina Plata

Confidence. Compassion. Dedication. It takes all these things to become a medical doctor, but add the right amount of encouragement and opportunity, and Josefina Plata and Karen Carbajal are well on their way to reaching that goal.

These students have come so far already, it’s hard to imagine that they won’t fulfill their dreams. Seeking a better education, Plata, an aspiring pediatrician, left Mexico to live with an uncle in Florida when she was only 12. Her classmate Carbajal, who plans to work with newborns as a neonatologist, worked two jobs to support her family after her father died.

Both entered the patient care technician program at Manatee Technical Institute (MTI) in Bradenton, Fla. Instructor Denise Walker (pictured with Plata, left, and Carbajal) says Carbajal “came into my classroom as a shy, insecure young woman.” The family had recently moved from North Carolina, and it had taken Carbajal’s mother three months to find a new job. The student, then 15, worked at a restaurant and a sporting goods store when not caring for her younger brother.

And Plata, Walker observes, also had to “work very hard to overcome her insecurities. She was self-conscious about her accent, and was unsure about participating in SkillsUSA because she was going to have to speak in front of people.”

Leaving her family behind was also “very, very hard,” says Plata, who was born in the United States but had lived in Mexico since she was 2. “I was just confused, couldn’t understand how my parents thought that sending me away from them was better for me.” She got a job to pay for a ticket home each summer.

With Walker’s guidance, the two students gave presentations for SWAT (Students Working Against Tobacco) and rose to the national level of SkillsUSA competitions: Plata in Career Pathways Showcase and Carbajal in Nurse Assisting.

“Having to go through all these competitions, it’s helped me gain confidence in myself and not be shy,” Carbajal adds.

Finding the right amount of compassion to be a doctor was no trouble at all. Carbajal says she developed a love for children by helping raise her brother. And Plata, after a first visit to the facility where they’d be taking care of patients, told her instructor with tear-filled eyes, “Mrs. Walker, I want to take them all home.”

Carbajal and Plata are now nursing students at MTI and plan to go on to get their doctor’s degrees at a university. To stay dedicated to your goals, Plata advises, “There’s many people out there who’ll tell you you can’t or that you’ll never be able to do it. But always try, and try your best, and you’re going to be able to do it.”