For this post, I interviewed Lucas Saenz. His education and medical career has taken him from Colombia to Pittsburgh, where he also met his wife, Christa.
KS: How and why did you come to the US? What is your immigrant status?
LS: Everything started my first year in medical school back in Colombia in 2001, when I realized that all my medical textbooks were written in the US. That sparked a desire in me to travel to the place where the books were written, to learn about how medicine was practiced there. Around the 5th year of medical school, in 2007, the opportunity came and I travelled to the US for the first time, to Miami. I was 24 years old. A Latin American shadowing program at the University of Miami provided my first one-year visa. In the following years, I travelled back and forth to different cities in the US under different immigrant statuses, such as business travelling visas, student visas, and research scholar visas, which is what I currently have.
What are the biggest differences between your life here and your life back home? What challenges do you face from being in a culture you didn’t grow up in?
The biggest challenge for me at the beginning was language. I couldn’t express myself or understand others well. Back in Colombia, I thought I knew English, since I had learned it in school since a young age. However, coming to the US made me realize how little I really knew. It wasn’t until I had spent two years here that I felt comfortable with the language and could communicate as I wanted to. The other challenge was knowing no one and losing my social circle. It took a lot of time to get to know people, not only because of the cultural barriers but also because I am an introvert. I moved around the US a lot, which also made it more difficult to build relationships. I was used to moving, since my growing up years were characterized by moving throughout Colombia. However, when doing it in another country, even simple things became difficult. Shopping for food, buying a phone, finding a church – all these were hurdles that had to be faced. One of the nice surprises, though, was that there were always people who were willing to help.
Back in Colombia, there were always people around me, whether it was family or friends. We helped each other out all the time. Here, however, I have had to learn to be more independent and individualistic, which has also forced me to become more practical. Not being close to my family and knowing all the time how they are has also been a big difference, not only for me but also especially for my mom, as she worries about me being far from home. This has forced us to strengthen our dependency on God and learn to love in other ways, from a distance.
With time, I adapted to the culture and enjoyed my time here. I found a good church, friendships grew, and I was able to assimilate to the workflow. Since coming to Pittsburgh in 2014, I attended Bellefield Presbyterian Church and through that was introduced to PRISM (Pittsburgh Region International Student Ministries). Getting involved with PRISM gave me the opportunity to reach out to other international students who were in similar situations as me, and to share my faith with them.
PRISM is a ministry that helps international students feel at home in Pittsburgh. It’s also where you met your wife, Christa. Tell us about that life-change!
God changed my life in ways I didn’t expect here in Pittsburgh. Christa and I met in a Bible study hosted by PRISM, and now, two years later, here we are married. My visa status is still related to my work, which adds a little bit of uncertainty. We haven’t been able to visit my family in Colombia yet, since there is a possibility that I wouldn’t be able to reenter the US on the way back. Figuring out my immigration status can be complicated and must be done in the correct timing, but we are thankful to be married and know God will help us in the future as we go through the process.
It has been enriching for Christa and I to get to know each other and learn about our backgrounds and what has shaped us as people. Coming from different cultures, there is even more to learn. We learn a lot from each other’s families, customs, different ways of thinking, and even different ways of daily living. It opens our perspectives and broadens our worldview. Of course, this can also bring challenges, as we have to learn how to communicate well and not make assumptions based on our own experiences.
You have medical training both in Colombia and the US. Do you have any challenges practicing medicine with that background?
There is a long road still to go in my education. Although I already completed 6 years of medical school (3 years of critical care training in Colombia and 3 years working in Pittsburgh), I will need to repeat some of my previous education to become a pediatric cardiologist here in the US. This means that I will need to take several exams and be certified in many fields. Even though it is a lot, it is worthwhile.
How has God and the church played a part in your journey?
Knowing that there is always a degree of uncertainty in my immigration status has driven me to depend on God. To know my citizenship is in heaven is an idea that has become more real to me. As an immigrant, I’ve faced some difficulty at church connecting with people. The differences between me and many other people that attend church here makes it easy for all of us to form stereotypes and not easily connect. However, I have met many people who are willing to cross those barriers and reach out, and those people have greatly influenced me.
What uncertainties do you face as an immigrant in the US, and how do you face that?
Since the last presidential elections, fear in internationals has grown, to the point that we restrict our travels outside the US and are even more uncertain about the future. Personally, it causes me to try to do everything according to the right timing and procedures as I move towards applying for a green card and citizenship. As an immigrant, I feel a lot of pressure to work hard, be competitive, and exceed expectations at work to keep my immigrant status. It also gives me a sense of expectancy for what God will bring in the future, since we never know what the future will hold and how things will change. A verse that has been an encouragement to me is Ephesians 2:19: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”