2020 Reflections: Adapting to Change

This is the second in a series of stories about how our students coped with COVID, and the stresses of learning from a distance, during the past year.

Yesting Morales Vela, a 2021  master’s degree candidate, is already a master — of adaptability.

He first honed the skill at eight when, transplanted from Mexico, he learned a new language, a new culture and a new school system almost instantaneously.

Placed a year beyond his grade level, he initially endured bullying, racist taunts and immigration issues. But each incident helped Morales Vela grow.

“I learned new skills that I’m now really thankful for,” he says. 

Ten years later, another pivotal event tapped his adaptability in a life-changing way.

“When my uncle was in a critical life-and-death situation, no one in my family spoke English, so my relatives made me the liaison at the hospital and his health care proxy,” recalls Morales Vela, now 29.

Thrust into this new environment with its specialized vocabulary, he was fascinated.

“I had to deal with these concepts of science and health and I just fell in love with everything about the field of medicine,” he adds.

College hadn’t previously been a goal but his new-found passion changed that. Morales Vela earned his Mercy College undergraduate Health Science degree in 2020, immediately began Masters-level training at Mercy to be a Physician Assistant and pledged to eventually complete a Ph.D.

Meanwhile, he was certified as an Emergency Medical Technician, became a volunteer EMT-B, took a job in a hospital emergency room and assisted Mercy professors on educational public health research projects. Everything contributed to a new, powerful goal; he would dedicate his career to helping minority communities — people like his own family — navigate and adapt to the confusing health care system.

“I want these people to feel more comfortable in medical settings, and to help them educate themselves to get better health care,” says Morales Vela.

As of early 2020, everything was in place. He was tackling a demanding course load while juggling his other responsibilities. His wife Crismelly was almost finished with law school. And the couple was planning to find a bigger apartment.

Then, the pandemic demanded that everyone make unwanted adaptations.

Morales Vela, who thrived in real-world classroom settings, now spent long hours seated back-to-back with Crismelly in their cramped, noisy apartment. Struggling to understand teachers through a computer screen, he found distractions everywhere.

“I felt real fear being away from in-person classes, where it’s easier to discipline myself to pay attention,” he says . “And I worried I’d fail classes or be kicked out of the program.

Morales Vela contacted his Mercy mentors, listened closely to their suggestions and then joined Crismelly in devising a new set of rules. The couple vowed to always wear earphones while in virtual class. They’d silence all electronic devices during study periods. And, most importantly, they would alter their study habits. Morales Vela would take voluminous notes longhand during virtual class, capturing every word with unwavering focus. Then, he would transcribe his notes into a Word document. The practice was surprisingly effective.

“You learn and remember more by first listening and writing notes during the lecture and then re-enforcing the material when you transcribe the notes.”  

“This ‘double learning’ is so effective that I plan to do it for the rest of my life.”

Morales Vela has also altered more than his actions. He’s changed his attitudes, too.

“This year reminded me not to be negative, hard as that is. Situations that seem overwhelming will eventually change, so you have to make the best of things and not let seemingly impossible situations stop you.”

“When people say ‘no,” he adds, “I don’t hear or believe it. I move forward, knowing that it’s essential to believe in yourself and not set limitations.”

He considers it persistence, drive, or resolution. Others have a different word for Morales Vela’s success: adaptability.