A few months to live. That was the prognosis given to the parents of Juan Collazo, now a junior biology major at UNCG. Juan had severe deformities in his eyes, lips and fingers. His condition, known as Amniotic Band Syndrome, occurs when the fetus becomes entangled in string-like amniotic bands in the womb, restricting blood flow and affecting development.
It can occur in any pregnancy, to any family; but not every family has access to the care that will help them overcome it.
Such was the case for Juan and his family, who come from a small village in Mexico. His parents believed that with the proper care, Juan could not only live, but thrive. They left their family and their home behind and brought Juan to Duke Hospital. Two decades and 14 surgeries later, he is preparing to be the first in his family to graduate from college.
“My goal is to do as much as I possibly can with the opportunity I have been given,” Juan says.
The opportunity he speaks of is more than access to the best health care. It’s access to a high-quality education, made possible by the UNCG Guarantee, a financial aid and mentoring program for high-achieving students at the poverty level.
“Now I have two driving forces,” he says, tears in his eyes. “I have this scholarship, and I have my parents who gave up everything for me. I am going to make sure that their investment and the university’s investment is not in vain.”
He is well on his way. While pursuing full university honors and managing the occasional surgery, he has excelled in challenging science classes, holding a near-perfect GPA. He conducts important research alongside biology professor Dr. Olav Rueppell. And he volunteers as an interpreter at a medical clinic in Chapel Hill, a job that has reinforced Juan’s ultimate goal – to open clinics for underserved populations in North Carolina and Mexico.
“As a translator, I often have to tell someone that they cannot continue using the clinic for their steady care. I don’t want to deliver that message. I don’t want to tell someone that we can’t care for them anymore. But I have to be professional so I try to swallow my feelings, and I do my job. These are the people I want to help later in my life.”
To prepare for his goal, Juan has his sights set on medical school and, in the meantime, is learning as much as he can from his professors at UNCG. Here, he has another opportunity, one that many universities cannot offer: undergraduate research. His work with Rueppell will lead to a better understanding of early life stress on honeybees. Currently, they are looking at the Varroa mite, a destructive parasite for honeybee colonies.
“The pursuit of knowledge attracts me to research. You answer the question before you, but that answer raises a lot of other questions. So you keep digging. That suits me. I am very curious. I never settle with an answer to a question. I never want to stop learning.”
By Andrea Spencer, University Relations
Photography by David Wilson