The only toy Iris Luceno, who grew up in Cuba, remembers having was a doctor’s kit. She would wear the white coat and toy stethoscope while dreaming of becoming a doctor one day. Although Iris’ life took a different direction, she passed on that dream to her daughter, Lisvet, who began her first day of medical school at the UCF College of Medicine’s White Coat Ceremony on Aug. 5.

“I cried. I cried so much during the ceremony — tears of joy,” Iris says. “It has always been my dream, and to see my daughter accomplish it was very, very special.”

Lisvet, who received a psychology degree from the University of Pennsylvania, is the first in her family to graduate from college. Her mother is a housekeeper and her father is a retired tile installer. The couple came to America in the 1980 Mariel boatlift. Iris was one of 3,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses who fled Cuba in search of religious freedom.

“I have cleaned houses for a lot of wealthy people,” Iris says, “and I saw that they were able to get there through education, so that’s all I ever wanted for my children. And even though I had to go back to cleaning more houses the day after the White Coat ceremony, I did it with the biggest smile; because now I had a phone full of pictures to show my employers of my daughter receiving her white coat.”

Iris came to the United States at 18. Two years after arriving in the U.S., she met her husband, Roberto Luceno, in Miami. He had also emigrated from Cuba after his family lost all of their wealth to the communist regime of Fidel Castro He came to the U.S. hoping to become an artist, but had to earn a living installing tile flooring. After getting married, the couple settled in Naples, Florida, where Lisvet and her sister, Lismary, were born.

When Lisvet was in middle school, her father was diagnosed with gum cancer. Since he understood little English, Lisvet attended all of his doctor’s appointments as an interpreter. The experience piqued her interest in medicine and showed her the difficulties that language and cultural barriers pose in receiving quality healthcare.

“I saw how much my parents struggled not being able to find doctors who could understand them,” she says. “My mom tells me stories about when my sister and I were sick as babies, she couldn’t find doctors or nurses who spoke Spanish. She couldn’t explain what was wrong with us and she couldn’t understand them. At times, she felt so helpless, she would just cry.”

Throughout the family’s experience, “Siempre pa’lante, nunca pa’tras” — Always go forward, never backward — was their mantra. They are words Lisvet is carrying to medical school.

“Seeing how hard my parents have worked and the sacrifices they have made have helped to push me this far,” she says. “Whenever I feel like giving up, I write notes to myself, like, ‘You are the daughter of Iris’ and stick them up in my room to strengthen me. I also keep some of my dad’s paintings in my room to keep me inspired and motivated.”

Gum cancer surgery left Roberto’s face severely disfigured so he did not attend his daughter’s White Coat Ceremony. Instead he watched on a live Facebook feed and has shared in Lisvet’s UCF experience ever since.

“It’s the first thing I tell everyone I talk to,” Roberto says. “Whenever I walk into a bodega or go to the gas station, I make it a point to tell everyone I run into that my daughter is going to medical school.”

Lisvet Luceno stands on stage next to College of Medicine Dean Deborah German
Lisvet Luceno accepts her white coat from College of Medicine Dean and Vice President for Health Affairs Deborah German. (Photo by Christin Senior)