“For years, I have searched for a place to call home. I would have thought that Bay would become home, but instead this school taught me that I am my own oasis and that home is wherever my whole self is.”
Boris Cotom spoke these words in his graduation speech to The Bay School community in spring 2019. After graduation, he jumped into life at UC Berkeley, where he is pre-med, studying in the School of Public Health, with a minor in journalism. Always thinking across disciplines and about the social impact of his work, he continues to build his place in the world that is true to his whole self.
In addition to his intense studies, he works as a tutor and with multiple research teams in public health at Berkeley.
Bay: So was this educational path clear to you when you went to college or did you twist and turn your way there?
Boris Cotom: It probably goes back to when I was in middle school. I immigrated here with my parents from Guatemala when I was 2 years old, so I had a very different experience to a lot of my classmates. Part of [my growing up] was going to doctor visits with my mom and dad. Now the laws have changed—you have to have an official interpreter with you—but when I was younger, I was the interpreter. Normally, doctors scare a lot of kids, but I would love going with my mom to the doctor’s office and learning about what was going on. I think that’s when I had an inkling I wanted to do that.
Going to Bay really solidified that interest, and I made a lot of friends who are pre-med now. I took all of the science courses I could take at Bay because I finished my language requirement within my first two years, so I had a lot of free time. I took Biological Psychology, Human Health and Disease, bio, chemistry, physics…I just did everything. I couldn’t absorb enough science. And all of those choices informed my path at Cal. I’m still pre-med, but the work that I want to do is in breaking down systems of oppression in the medical field. And that can be done as a doctor, but I think that the stronger, harder work comes in the public health area.
Bay: There is momentum among medical professionals to tie health and health outcomes to cultural context, socioeconomic context, so it seems that you’re very much heading to where medicine needs to go.
BC: The reason I chose Berkeley over other schools was because of their research. You can go in wanting anything, and there’s probably research going on in that area. In Pre-Med 101, I met this doctor, Dr. Graham, who does a lot of work in public health in other countries. He helps lawmakers, policymakers, and has worked in Guatemala to improve the water there. I emailed him during COVID—”Hey, I love the work you do. Could I just have a zoom with you?” I thought it was gonna be a quick conversation, but I’m now doing research with him! And I’m traveling to Guatemala [in 2022] to do similar work, which is really exciting. I’m also working with another group of researchers at Cal, led by a pediatrician who does research in public health. We’re working with SF USD to find ways to improve the nutrition of children in schools. So at Berkeley, just one email opened this whole world of possibilities
Bay: Do you plan to spend time out in the world before going to medical school?
BC: I definitely want to take a gap year, minimum. I’m in the public health program, and at Cal, as an undergrad, you have to apply to the public health school, and it’s a small pool of students who get accepted, and it opens the opportunity for you to get a master’s in public health in just one year. So I’m thinking about doing that first and doing some research and then going to medical school.
Bay: How do you spend your time when you’re not studying or tutoring?
BC: I do love reading and writing, [but] I’m having a hard time now finding science classes where I can write. I’m a homebody. I love being with family and my siblings, and I love being outdoors. My family started hiking during quarantine, and we just went to Maui, where we did this 4-mile uphill hike to a waterfall. A couple years ago, we wouldn’t have done that for sure.
Bay: Can you think of a time at Bay that really stands out for how it shaped your definition of success?
BC: American Studies and humanities classes were really eye-opening; they brought us out of the classroom into the real world. I remember learning about Syrian refugees, and just seeing that there are so many ways of living. Mr. Jackson’s Social Movements class was when I realized that I wanted to commit myself to the betterment of my community, the LatinX and immigrant community in this country. And we had a struggle opening the People of Color Club at Bay; it took us a couple of months to convince teachers and staff. But when that started, seeing freshmen coming in and finding a community that gave us a safe space, that was really special.
I always go back to my experience at Bay, and that reminds me of what I want to do and who I am. My goal is to find a place in this world where I can really make a change, where I can follow my love for science and medicine but also where I can truly make a change like I did at Bay with my friends. So yes, I feel Bay really offered us the space to find success in various ways because they opened our minds to new perspectives and to the rest of the world.
Bay: If you were going to give a Morning Meeting talk now, what topic would you choose?
BC: The immigrant experience and my experience in general. For me, it was really easy to go into Bay because I was used to code switching, like since kindergarten. I always wanted to do Morning Meeting, and I never found the courage. But now more first-generation students will be coming into Bay, and I feel like opening up that conversation would have been exciting.
Bay: If we dumped out your backpack right now, what would we find?
BC: You would probably find swimming shorts, a calculator, my iPad, my Apple pen, and probably a book I’m reading, Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi—it’s amazing! You would also find bug repellent because I hate bugs and mosquitoes just love me. Even in the city, once a day I put on some bug repellent.
Bay: Your three top songs, podcasts—or both!—right now?
BC: Right now, I’m listening to Solar Power by Lorde. It’s this summery acoustic song, so perfect. I play it every time I’m in the car when it’s sunny in San Francisco. Also, Happier Than Ever by Billie Eilish; it starts off very acoustic, with a ukulele and then it goes to a rock song midway—incredible. And then there’s Waterworld by Kacey Musgraves, with beautiful lyrics. I remember telling the teachers I was close to at Bay to listen to her album Golden Hour; I hoped that album would remind them of me.
Bay: I will remind them to give it a listen!
The Bay School of San Francisco offers an innovative, interdisciplinary curriculum grounded in mindfulness and upheld by a values-driven community. To learn more, please visit our website at www.bayschoolsf.org.