First-generation ASU grad finds inspiration in his parents’ battle with cancer

October 3, 2021

ASU graduate Michael Piedra Gonzalez’s academic and professional goals are extremely personal to him. Piedra Gonzalez, who recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in medical studies, is working hard to become a medical professional after watching both of his parents battle cancer. 

As a first-generation college student, one place the Glendale, Arizona, native found the resources to support his ambitions was in the TRIO program, a set of federally funded programs that support first-generation and low-income college students as well as students with disabilities and veterans. 

A hand on an image of a body scan

“I really aligned myself with the message brought on by TRIO. I saw myself in the students there. I myself am first-generation and of high financial need. It really influenced my decision to be a part of it,” Piedra Gonzalez said. 

Piedra Gonzalez said that TRIO not only acted as a support group where he could seek and give advice, but it also provided him with some of the closest friendships he made at ASU. Part of Piedra Gonzalez’s involvement in the program included working as a tutor for other TRIO students. He said this experience helped him be more involved and build relationships with other students, in addition to growing his resume and professional experience. 

Piedra Gonzalez feels that being able to help other students succeed was a reward itself. 

“Just being able to have that dialogue with students, even sometimes helping students just learn how to study, are both great joys of mine. I sometimes get students who have no idea how to research or have no idea how to basically navigate a course. Having them come to my office hours or my appointments and being able to communicate with them and teach them how to study is really nice,” Piedra Gonzalez said. 

In addition to TRIO, Piedra Gonzalez was also a part of Barrett, The Honors College. As he wrapped up his time at ASU, he shared some of his advice for current Sun Devils.

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: I wanted to do medical studies because my parents both had cancer, and I know that's a story that is pretty observable these days. Just the impact that came with that and the consequences, not only to my mom and dad but to my family and just overall, made me want to get back at cancer. I want to go back and deal with the emotions and everything that came with these experiences. 

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: The thing that really changed my perspective is simply just how everyone comes from different backgrounds, everyone has a different perspective. There are students who are going to ASU who are really disadvantaged financially, and there are students who have a lot more. You can see how [these differences] exist and even though they exist, it’s really interesting to see the connections those people can make. 

I’ve met people in my time at ASU who certainly have more money than my family does, but I’ve still been able to make connections and I’ve been able to work with them. Getting past those social lines has been something that I’ve fortunately been able to experience at ASU. I guess the big takeaway is just being able to understand that people come from different perspectives, but we can still find someone to work with, even despite those perspectives. 

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: The reason why I ended up choosing ASU is because it's the bigger name within Arizona. I was almost going to go to U of A, but after my dad was diagnosed with colon cancer, I wanted to be close to him. The resources that ASU has, the size of it and the name recognition also all really contributed to my decision to stay here and be with my dad. Also, I wanted to get into Barrett. 

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: I've been really fortunate to be able to have had a lot of professors who really helped me. Two of them who I want to pick out are Dr. Lisenbee and Dr. Houtchens

Dr. Lisenbee teaches topics like Bio 181, so just general biology, but he also teaches things like genetics. The biggest thing that I’ve learned from him is just to realize that learning can be something fun and something that is very approachable. Especially with things like genetics, those are very tough topics, but the way he's able to communicate and bring some humor with his lectures — it really does pay off. It has influenced me to learn to be a better communicator. 

In terms of Dr. Houtchens, he teaches organic chemistry, and what I really learned from him is how having good organization, a clear plan and resources all laid out can really make a difference. He’s probably one of the best professors I’ve ever had. I have to take the MCAT, and I feel like I’m already ready for ochem [organic chemistry] just because of the way he structures his class. 

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Live your life; let the world adjust to you. I know there’s a lot of individualism, and some people might hear that and think “that sounds a little selfish,” but in a world that is very globalized, it seems less private so it's important to hold on to your sense of self and value it. 

No matter what it is, it all starts with individuals so it's important to maintain and hold onto that. As you study, make sure you don’t forget to focus on that individual and take time to take care of yourself and understand that you’re growing and learning. Don’t get frustrated when you don’t understand things; you have to be patient with yourself. All that patience and all those small steps develop as you live your life. They come by understanding that you’re an individual. 

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: Definitely the TRIO office on the second floor of the Post Office [at ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus]. I have so many great memories 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: Currently, I am going to be doing a master's program in health care delivery [at ASU]. It's just there to give me more research experience and also to be there so that I can prepare for the MCAT, which I should be taking around early next year.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: Cancer.