If there was one thing Karen Cravero wanted to pass on to her two boys, she said it was to always take the chance.
You can’t say you failed if you didn’t even try, Cravero said.
She took the chance when she fled Lima, Peru, at 12 years old to escape Shining Path, a guerilla organization targeting her father in the Peruvian military.
She took another chance when she applied to John Hopkins University for a doctorate program, starting her studies a week after her second son was born. Then, she applied to UF to pursue her M.D. as a divorced mom with sole custody of her two sons.
“It wasn’t safe back when I lived there,” she said. “Things got a little bit better after I moved away.”
In 1998, she emigrated with her family from Peru to Miami and started over. She said she’s faced some immense struggles in her life, and coming to the U.S. was definitely one of them.
“My parents didn’t speak the language, so they really couldn't help me,” she said. “I'm the oldest of three, so it was basically up to me to try to help them.”
She said coming to the U.S. was very sudden, and learning English was a difficult process that she, fortunately, was able to overcome. Along with the language barriers were the culture shocks that made it clear Miami was very different from Lima, the capital of Peru.
The toilets also caught her off guard.
“The toilet actually flushed like the TV, and you had the little water go in cycles,” she said. “To me, that was such a shock because we don't have running water…We collected water once or twice a week from the truck that would come in, and then you had to boil water to avoid cholera.”
Cravero started working at a young age in Miami, she said, to try and help support her family. Going to college was a big step for her, she said.
“I didn't know how I was going to afford it,” she said. “But I was able to get some scholarships, and that worked out really well.”
She went to the University of West Florida in Pensacola, Florida, for her undergraduate degree and immediately after jumped into a doctorate program at John Hopkins University for cellular and molecular medicine in 2012.
“I knew I liked science, and I knew I liked medicine, but I didn't think medical school was something that I was going to be able to afford in any way, shape or form,” she said. “That’s why I actually went the Ph.D. route.”
During her doctorate, she learned about her love for interacting with patients and decided she wanted to go to medical school regardless.
The decision to come to UF for medical school was an easy one because she always thought about being a Gator, she said. She moved from Baltimore to Gainesville in 2018 with her two sons, Walter and Lyndon.
“My kids are my world,” she said. “They really keep me going every single day. We became the three minions, and that's who we are because they don't know what the Musketeers are.”
She considers her kids the biggest motivators to pursue her dreams. And right alongside her family has been what she refers to as her village, a team of mentors who have been by her side throughout her time at UF.
Dr. Beverly Dede, a 61-year-old program director and clinical assistant professor at UF, said she couldn’t admire Cravero more than she already does.
“She was coming into medical school with a Ph.D., and she had children,” she said. “I've been here 29 years. I've only known probably less than five students who have pulled that off.”
Dede said she doesn’t see Cravero as someone who lets any barrier stop her from taking what she wants. As a first-generation Cuban, Dede recognizes the difficulty that Cravero had to face to get where she is now.
“She's someone who takes on a challenge, and she's going to figure out a way to get it done,” she said. “I just don't know when she sleeps.”
In Cravero’s first year at UF, she discovered a passion for dermatology, a career path she had previously never considered. During a patient presentation, a little boy the same age as her youngest son came in with epidermolysis bullosa — a rare skin condition that causes fragile, blistering skin.
Ever since that first presentation, she found herself drawn to skin manifestations and their connection to healthcare.
“That was my aha moment,” she said. “I think I was there for two days in the clinic, and all of a sudden, it was just like, wow, this is what I want to do.”
Dr. Marjorie Montanez-Wiscovich, a 43-year-old UF clinical assistant professor who specializes in dermatology, said she met Cravero early this year when she decided to apply for a dermatologist residency. When a medical school graduate applies for residency, the schools that each student applies to must match with them in whichever specialty they choose to pursue.
“For dermatology, that match is quite competitive,” Montanez-Wiscovich said. “There are way more applicants than there are spots in the U.S.”
The percentage of applicants who match is even lower for foreign-born graduates, making it even more competitive, she said.
As an immigrant from Puerto Rico, Montanez-Wiscovich related to a lot of the struggles Cravero was facing.
She got her undergraduate degree from the University of Puerto Rico and has both a doctorate and a doctorate of medicine, like Karen will soon, she said.
Cravero looks at her challenges as things that have made her a stronger person, she said.
“You’re either a mom, or you're a career woman, and having the proper balance to do both, it's kind of hard,” she said. “To me, getting my Ph.D., being able to actually have my title, being able to complete medical school, those are my accomplishments, you know?”
Residency match results come out in March 2023. She anxiously hopes to match the first time around with the overwhelming support of both of her children.
“They want to call me Doctor Doctor mommy when I get my M.D.,” she said.
She came here and gave it her best shot, Cravero said. Now, it’s just a waiting game.
Contact Ashleigh Lucas at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @ashlucas01.
Ashleigh Lucas is a second-year journalism student at the University of Florida and the photo and video editor for The Alligator. She previously worked as a photographer and videographer at The Alligator, and was the photo and video editor in the fall of 2022. In her freetime she enjoys binge-watching cheesy TV shows, practicing her photography skills and reading any book she can get her hands on.