Reyna Raya

Portrait of Cedona WattsWhen Reyna Raya was 11 she decided she wanted to be a pharmacist. Now, 40 years later, she is one year away from her goal. On May 15, 2015, the 51-year-old mother and cancer survivor will don her cap and gown and walk proudly across the stage at the USC School of Pharmacy commencement ceremony, marking the culmination of a decades-long academic and personal journey.

Born in Mexico, Raya came to the U.S. with her family as a toddler and lived in East Los Angeles, just down the street from the USC Health Sciences Campus. When she was nine years old, her father moved the family to Compton, where most of her family still lives today. In high school Raya joined a science-based program for students interested in health care careers. But her plans were put on hold when, as a young single mother of two boys, she decided to put her children’s academic careers before her own.

“I was the first person in my family to graduate from high school and, even at 45, I was the first person in my family to get a college degree,” Raya said. “But my kids were my priority for a long time before that. I thought, once they are in a good place then it will be time for me to take care of me, as far as college was concerned.”

Raya never lost sight of her dream and once her sons (now 25 and 30 years old) had graduated from high school, she dove head first into higher education, in pursuit of her Doctor of Pharmacy degree.

Just one year into undergraduate biology studies at California State University, Long Beach, Raya was diagnosed with breast cancer. With the help of her children, who she calls her “biggest cheerleaders,” Raya fought to continue her college studies while undergoing surgeries and chemotherapy.

During her chemotherapy sessions, Raya actually served as a cheerleader herself. She would later discover that nurses deliberately sat her next to new patients to calm their chemotherapy nerves. “I would chat them up, and they would be so busy talking to me that they would kind of forget that it was their first scary day of chemo,” Raya remembered. “One of the things I used to tell them is – you get through it, one way or another. You just put one foot in front of the other, and before you know it, you’re on the other side.”

Raya applies this determination to her PharmD studies here at USC: “If it wasn’t that I believed so strongly that I had something to offer to my community, I could never have come back to school after cancer. But I have always had this goal of finishing school and coming back to work in my community, and that’s what keeps me going.”

Helping others is what sparked Raya’s initial interest in a pharmacy career. “One of the things I’ve taught my children is that when we become people of service and prioritize other people over ourselves, we become better people,” she said. “It’s part of why I chose the profession that I did, part of how I’ve always lived, and why I’ve chosen to help people who don’t necessarily have the resources to help themselves.”

That dedication was recognized when Raya was honored with a 2014 Civic Engagement Award, which recognizes “the best and most impactful partnerships that engage students, faculty and community-based organizations from across the university.”

Raya currently works at a pharmacy in South Los Angeles, volunteers her time at free clinics in Tijuana and does community service with organizations such as Habitat for Humanity. As a breast cancer survivor, Raya also works to education her fellow Latinas about the disease, which is the number one cancer in the Latina population. From her breast cancer awareness event, Rock The Pink, to the breast cancer fotonovela she is working on with project creator and associate professor Mel Baron, Raya is constantly contributing to the cause.

She believes that simply breaking down the fear of getting screened can make a difference. “If we can screen them early, we can treat people early, and hopefully save more lives,” she said.

As her educational journey nears its end, Raya is looking forward to starting her career. She hopes to continue working in under-served communities, much like the one she grew up in.

Raya sums it up simply. “There’s so many things I’ve survived over time, and it would be too easy to give in, to just surrender. You need that fire to keep going, and if you don’t have it, find it.”