Christi Candido dreamed of becoming a doctor while in high school and all through college — but something always kept her back.

At times it was grades. Sometimes, low self-esteem. Even majoring in biology at UC Davis didn’t push her any closer.

But during four years of soul searching after college graduation — she calls them “growth years” — everything began to change. Candido encountered events and people that persuaded her to believe she would be a viable applicant. Among them: her fourth-grade teacher, a Kaiser Permanente doctor who became her mentor, and a UC Davis Health physician whom she worked for as a research assistant.

And they were right. Candido is now a student at the UC Davis School of Medicine.

“This is surreal,” Candido said with a bright smile in July on the first day for the class of 2027. “It feels like all my dreams have come true.”

Candido, understandably, refuses to let go of this please-pinch-me, I’m-really-in-med-school feeling. Which is why she filed much of class orientation on her Instagram account. It’s a popular feed for hundreds of students across the country from underdog backgrounds who are cheering her on.

“I want to capture all these moments,” Candido said. “This is what I’ve built up my life and my calling to be.”

A journey that started in the Philippines

Candido’s journey began in a rural village two hours from Manila, where she and her sister were raised by a single-parent mother who tended to farm animals for a living. The family lacked health care access, so relied heavily on prayers and folk medicine for healing, especially when Grandma Lola got sick.

They got a chance at a better life when Candido was 7 and the family’s immigrant visa petition submitted by her aunt in Modesto was approved. They packed their belongings into a single suitcase and boarded a flight.

“There were a lot of things I had to get used to, plus learning English,” Candido said.

Betty Elvazian, a fourth-grade teacher, noticed something Candido didn’t see in herself — a girl ambitious, focused and driven to learn. Elvazian promoted her to fifth-grade math. “That was the first time someone thought that I could accomplish something greater than what I was put in,” Candido said.

When Candido was 11, her family moved into her mother’s workplace, a residential care facility for the elderly. For the next seven years, Candido lived in a home with six senior citizens, sometimes helping with the residents’ hygiene.

She developed a passion for caring for older adults, yet didn’t seriously consider a career in medicine. She didn’t think it was possible and had no idea how to get there. She also had never seen a Filipino doctor in the Central Valley.

Dreams dashed, then a big surprise

Candido graduated from Modesto High and attended UC Davis. Early on, she envisioned herself becoming a doctor. But she struggled in school, got sick for an extended period, and struggled more.

“I didn’t know how to ask for help, and my family didn’t know how to navigate these things either, so I was feeling scared and ashamed of failing,” Candido said. “My mom crossed oceans to get me here, and I felt like it was a dishonor to even admit my failures.”

By her fourth year, with a GPA below 3.0, Candido considered a career as a researcher or a master’s in geriatrics. All the while, she volunteered at the H.L.U.B. student-run clinic, which serves Hmong residents, surrounded by high-achieving peers intent on becoming physicians.

“I will definitely not make it to medical school,” she said to herself. The phrase stuck.

Candido graduated in four and a half years and continued her job helping with psychiatry research. But eventually, she started to open up about her shattered dream. And the feedback people provided shocked her. They told her she needed to be a doctor.

The most encouraging words came from her research supervisor, psychiatrist Glen Xiong, who said: “Someday there’s going to be a patient that will benefit from the lenses you have lived through, because you’re going to see something that nobody else is going to see in them, and that’s why we need you in medicine.”

Candido enrolled in a post-baccalaureate program with numerous science courses, a chance to overwrite sections of her transcript for a more promising med school candidacy. “I reinvented myself,” she said.

Her program was based in the Bay Area, but she continued her UC Davis job and another as a health insurance broker. And she worked to keep up with her classes by studying, of all places, in vacant classrooms at the UC Davis School of Medicine, where she bumped into faculty members she hoped would one day be her professors.

She finished the program with a 3.95 GPA, took her MCAT twice (not unusual for students seeking a higher score), got accepted into a medical school in Michigan, but held out for her top choice, UC Davis. She’s now part of the REACH pathway, which provides clinical experience in the Central Valley and where Candido plans to serve as a physician. She’s interested in geriatrics and psychiatry.

Encouraging others through lived experience

Candido is so grateful that she’s turned to Instagram to celebrate the successes with her nearly 1,500 followers. It’s her way of encouraging others to realize that if she can defy the odds, so can they.

She also provides “tips for success” in posts, and one-on-one mentorship at no cost to students across who seek her out for encouragement. The mentees, whom she meets with via Zoom, are typically the first in their family to attend college and struggle academically.