Class of ’23 Graduate Genavie Cabrera has soared to new heights at Texas Tech, and her journey is just beginning.
Perhaps the butterfly is proof that you can go through a great deal of darkness and still become something beautiful.”
- Author unknown
The journey to the Texas Tech commencement finishing line has been neither smooth, nor easy for Genavie Cabrera, despite remarkable signs to the contrary – the infectious smile, self-assured posture and unmistakable certitude about life in general.
Hers is a story of not only overcoming but also becoming, of looking adversity square in the eye and refusing to blink, of relentless determination to get where she's going.
But with the long-awaited arrival of commencement comes a bittersweet moment. Cabrera's mother, Yolanda Marie, passed away in early 2019 following a courageous battle with a rare and aggressive form of cancer. Cabrera has missed her every day, even more as graduation day approaches.
“That has been something I have been trying to ignore,” she said, “but as it gets closer, it's so hard because this is the moment she longed and prayed for, for so many years. Just knowing when I walk across that stage, she's not going to be on the other end is something I wrestle with every day and try to work through now so that when the day comes, it can be a joyous celebration.”
Still, she realizes her mom will be present in so many ways. She knows it, and she can feel it.
“She will be there in my heart,” she said. “I'm dedicating my cap to her. She really liked butterflies, so there will be a bunch of butterflies on it.”
Cabrera's time at Texas Tech has been transformational, arriving on campus in the fall semester of 2020 as valedictorian of her 700-member San Antonio Madison class and subsequently finishing the demands of a biochemistry degree in three years. She plans to take a gap year and prepare for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) as she recalibrates her focus on medical school.
“I knew I wanted to do medical school my senior year of high school,” she said. “Becoming a doctor and going to medical school has been ingrained in me since middle school, but I really committed to it during my time in high school.”
That decision solidified with her mother's cancer diagnosis.
“I spent a lot of my freshman and sophomore year in and out of hospitals with her, and then in January of my junior year, she passed,” she said. “I just knew I wanted to be able to help people in their most vulnerable state and seeing how doctors treated us during the good times and the bad times, that's the kind of person I want to be so I can pour into patients. When people are in the hospital, it's usually the worst days of their life, and the chance to be a light to people, like doctors were to us, is something I absolutely knew I was going to do.”
Traveled Path Has Not Been Easy
Make no mistake, there have been challenging times along the way. Like many of today's college students, much of Cabrera's academic experience has been punctuated by the seemingly unending presence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“My second year, things opened up as far as restrictions, but that's also what made the year so difficult,” she recalled. “I spent a lot of time in my dorm, doing homework and watching movies on Netflix. I was isolated, which is weird, because I am a social person who enjoys meeting people. I just didn't have the opportunity to do that and that made the second year so hard. I was trying to have a social life while also having my hardest academic course load. It was hard to establish friendships.”
For a while it seemed as if the forces of adversity were conspiring against her.
“I was like, ‘I don't know if I can do this,'” she said. “It seemed like I was always doing school, and I had a lot going on in my family life. It seemed like nothing was going right. It was a really, really tough time where I thought about transferring and going back home.”
Fortunately for Cabrera, she had people like Michael Latham, a biochemistry professor who connected with her personally and was a consistent presence through some of her most trying days.
“You have this distribution of students in the class, and she was on the upper edge,” said Michael Latham, who taught two of Cabrera's introductory biochemistry classes and is now on faculty at the University of Minnesota. “She stands out for being a good student, but you could also tell she was a good person. That's not always the case, but she was more than just a great person academically.”
Cabera said Latham was a stabilizing influence in her life at a time when it seemed like the academic ground was shifting beneath her feet.
“He was flexible. He understood we are people, not just students,” she said. “He worked with me and made me feel seen. He was just so nice. I genuinely love biochemistry, and that's why I was able to stick with it. He helped remind me why I was doing this and why I loved learning about this specifically.”
For Latham, it was nothing special, just treating someone the way he would like to be treated.
“We've all had to deal with life, and they (students) have to deal with life,” he said. “If I had an issue, I hope someone would cut me some slack so I could deal with it. It doesn't hurt me to do it, and it's so simple.”
From then on, for Cabrera and her dreams of ultimately becoming a physician, it was full speed ahead.
“I'm glad I just pushed through that,” she said in reflecting on that time. “I just had to take it a day at a time instead of looking at it as an entire semester because that was freaking me out. When I broke it down a day at a time, I knew when I had tests, when I had assignments, things like that, and I was able to make it through the semester. And I am so glad I stuck it out because this year has been absolutely amazing.”
Blooming On The Texas Tech Campus
Indeed, since those days, Cabrera has bloomed right where she was planted, fully embracing campus life on all fronts. She serves as president of the College of Arts and Sciences ambassadors group, which represents Texas Tech's largest college in two distinct ways – student recruitment and community outreach.
“We go to lots of recruiting events, visit high schools,” she said. “I love going to high schools and being able to talk to students about what they're interested. We also serve the Lubbock community, going out and volunteering at places like the South Plains Food Bank.”
Recruiting has a particular appeal for Cabrera, who is eager to share what Texas Tech has to offer as well as what her college degree means to her.
“There is a big push when things get hard,” she said. “I think something like 17% of physicians are female and Hispanic. There should be greater representation of Hispanics in the medical field and specifically more women. Growing up, my parents were my biggest advocates of doing what I wanted and not sticking to what our family had always done.
“My father grew up working in the factories, but he has always wanted more for me. I knew I would be capable of more because my parents were such big advocates of that and never limiting what I could become because of race or gender.”
Of course, that's not the only place Cabrera's been plugged in. She also serves as the only student on Dean Tosha Dupras' advisory board, where she makes her voice heard as an advocate for students and the college.
“I won't ever forget working with these successful professionals in helping promote and enhance the College of Arts and Sciences,” she said. “Just being able to sit among them at the same table and talk about initiatives for the college has been incredible. They have made me feel so included, and they want me to succeed.”
Devoted And Dedicated To Others
Success is what Cabrera wants for others as well. She especially wants first-generation students to know Texas Tech has resources and people dedicated to helping them smoothly and effectively navigate the contours of their college years.
“What's great about the first-gen program at Tech is peer mentorship is such a big aspect,” she said. “Students get paired with a peer mentor, someone literally to help them walk through all their questions. My senior year, I've worked as a peer mentor, and it's so nice being able to give back and share my experiences. My advice to a first-generation college student is this: Don't be afraid to ask questions.
“I would love to be a role model for others. That's why I do everything I do. Whatever we put our hearts and minds to, we are capable of doing.”
Cabrera's natural inclination to reach out and help others hasn't gone unnoticed. Samantha Smith, the assistant director of recruitment in the College of Arts and Sciences, has been amazed by the breadth and depth of Cabrera's commitment.
“She has a massive drive for others,” she said “She is an extremely humble student. She has a tough background with her mother passing away while she was in high school, but instead of allowing that to ruin her life, she took it as a driving factor and uses it every day.
“She is constantly pushing students to push themselves, to better themselves, academically, in postgraduate programs, to be the best they can. Not a lot of students are hyper-focused on others. They want to get out of college and get on to postgraduate work or a job. She has a lot on her plate right now, but the way she continually puts others before herself tells me a lot about her.”
Flying Toward The Next Chapter
Her three years on the South Plains of Texas have flown by, and Cabrera knows this Texas Tech season of life, so meaningful and so fulfilling, will soon draw to a close.
“It's all real now,” she says, almost to remind herself. “I have my cap and gown. I had my senior pictures done in March. I'm literally just waiting for the day, which is so crazy.”
What's also crazy is how all of this – the wonderful memories, the incredible people, even the difficult days – unspooled in her life without a chance to share it all with her mother.
“Thinking about graduation, one thing that's hard when I'm talking to my friends is there's a sorrow in my heart that isn't necessarily in theirs,” she said. “It's something no one can really explain unless they've been a teenage girl without a mother. Getting to graduation season has been really hard without my mom, but everything I'm doing, I'm doing for her, and she would be so proud of where I am and where I've come from.
“It's part of my story. I love tattoos, and I have two butterfly tattoos, one on each shoulder. One is purple and says, ‘Mom,' and the other one has a cancer ribbon that says, ‘Yolanda Marie.' She is such a big part of my story and the reason I am the woman I am today.”
This journey will continue – and the best is almost certainly to come.
The butterfly does not look back upon its caterpillar self, either fondly or wistfully; it simply flies on.”
- Guillermo del Toro