What Irwin Munoz didn’t do – join a Las Vegas criminal gang as some friends and relatives did – freed him up to not only become the first in his family to graduate from high school, but also to become a UNLV graduate and a member of the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine Class of 2025.
Yet he says resisting that peer pressure was easier to handle than overcoming the societal negativity toward the poor, as well as the self-doubt that can become a byproducts of grinding poverty.
“As a low-income, first-generation Mexican-American, at first I never envisioned attaining a college education, nor was it discussed as part of my education plan,” says Munoz, who helped pay his immigrant family’s bills, including a mortgage, by working nearly full time at McDonald’s during high school. “For quite a few years, I didn’t speak English well, just Spanish. My (Clark County) public education experience was largely filled with a culture of minimal academic expectations – to finish school and get a job. Most educators didn’t think I could amount to anything."
That changed toward the end of high school, through an internship program and teachers dedicated to showing students that college was possible. "I didn’t think my background was right for college," he says. "When people are poor, not many are thinking about the kind of jobs college can make possible. They’re only thinking of the necessities just to stay alive.”
That Munoz would beat back his own low expectations – “I never really thought about being able to go to medical school until a classmate mentioned it my junior year of college” – has fueled his desire to help others unsure of where their futures may lie, including becoming vice president and then president of Future Latinos in Medicine at UNLV.
Though Munoz was born at University Medical Center in 1995, his parents, who had immigrated to the U.S. earlier, came to think their native Mexico would be a better place to raise a family, and they returned to La Barca, a small farming community in the state of Jalisco. While Munoz remembers cows, horses, chickens, and pigs were commonplace there when he was a little boy, what really sticks in his mind is frequently seeing a pack of about 25 ostriches running through the area. “They really scared me, the way they looked. They were so fast. I thought their beaks would bite my face, so I avoided them at all costs. I would jump in my parents’ arms when I saw them…I never found out if they were being raised for food…All I know is they gave me some bad dreams.”
At the age of eight, Munoz returned to the U.S. with his parents. Three families, 12 people, all relatives, would live in a small house on the east side of Las Vegas. His dad was a mechanic; his mother worked at a dry cleaners. Attempts by the families to learn English were largely unsuccessful, so when Munoz went off to school he only understood Spanish. By middle school, Munoz says English as a second language (ESL) courses taught by caring teachers had finally made it possible for him to really understand what was going on in class. “I became less timid and learned to open up more about needing help with reading and writing.”
Middle school was also the time when Munoz became very aware of gang activity that Las Vegas Metro Police say is responsible for an increase in violent crime in Southern Nevada. “My parents’ expectation of me – and for my younger brother and sister – was to earn a good and honest life and not be in jail. Simple enough, right? Sounds easy, but knowing how various relatives in my family and friends faced drug issues and associated themselves with criminal gangs, it wasn’t easy to say no.
"It was not uncommon to see young teens participating in risky behaviors. I realized this pattern at a young age, and promised my parents to escape from such influence. Up close, I’ve seen drug use, physical violence, and criminal activity around my neighborhoods and thought this must be a common occurrence in cities. It was not until my college years that began to realize that what I experienced was not common among those from affluent families."
To this day, Munoz isn’t sure why the gang leader who pressed him to join a gang didn’t use physical violence in an attempt to convince him to join. “I was lucky.”
When he left Woodbury Middle School for Valley High School, college still wasn’t on his radar. While he says he noticed that education could open doors for people, he says college wasn’t something talked about by teachers or friends. “I was a decent student but nothing special. It didn’t seem realistic then to go to college.”
So he devoted much of his energy to participating in wrestling, football, and weightlifting, setting school weightlifting records at 160, 170, and 180 pounds. At 160 pounds, he bench-pressed double his weight. “My parents were going through a divorce then, so I spent more time working out at school. I’d often train three times a day to keep my mind off what was going on at home.”
Munoz says what finally made college seem possible was the Team Action internship program at Valley High School he participated in during his junior and senior years. The program gives Valley students a chance to experience one day a week what it’s like to work in a profession. One of his internships was at a physical therapy clinic. “I shadowed a clinician and was taught many concepts about the musculoskeletal system. I saw various patients come in with painful knees or shoulders and over months of hard work come out better than they could imagine. The relationship between the clinician and patient ignited an interest in me to pursue such a career in college.” Also helpful, he says, were school field trips to colleges in Utah and Nevada. “They helped me get excited about college.”
The internships, Munoz says, got him to hit the books hard enough to increase his grade point to a solid “B,” enough to win him some scholarships to UNLV. Those scholarships, coupled with a full-time security job at a casino, sent him on the way to becoming a physical therapist. “I saw myself working with athletes,” he says.
His college experience wasn’t an immediate success. Without the proper high school background in math and suffering from the lack of sleep that comes with working a full-time job as he went to school full time, he flunked college algebra. Getting a job on campus helped with his time management. And tutoring helped him do well when he took algebra again. “I wasn’t about to give up.”
During his junior year at UNLV, a course in anatomy and physiology would ultimately make him confront his own uncertainties – and switch career paths.
”In that course, I developed an interest in understanding how the human body functions in relation to the etiology of illnesses. I enjoyed being challenged to think critically about the possible outcomes if a certain chemical pathway was disrupted,"
A close friend suggested he consider medical school. "I only knew that medical school is one of the most rigorous programs that would require advanced years of training. I never knew or have met a physician that resembled my background or identity…I was afraid that students like myself who have my upbringing are not fit enough to be a medical student.”
Munoz said what finally made him switch to medicine was a sense of duty to serve patients “with whom I share a resemblance, culture and language…At the end of my junior year, I made the decision to switch to the premed track. If it meant taking two more years of college science courses to best prepare myself for application, that was fine with me.”
To pay for medical school, Munoz, now an Army second lieutenant, is in a Military Health Professions Scholarship program, where the military pays a medical student’s tuition, provides a living stipend, and reimburses students for required books, equipment, and supplies. For every year of scholarship assistance, he will be on active duty as a military physician for one year.
As Munoz – he regularly volunteers to speak to middle and high school students about the opportunities available to them – moves forward toward a career in medicine, he says he will never forget where he came from.
“I strongly believe that by having physicians who share their own patients’ background and culture, they can facilitate building trust in the healthcare system. That feeling was reinforced through my three years at Volunteers in Medicine of Southern Nevada. People appreciated that there was someone like me who could help them understand what the doctors said in their visits.
"Some immigrants see health care as needed only when emergencies occur and others find it difficult to find a primary care physician they can trust. I feel I can be that physician that can relate to immigrant families and those with limited resources.”