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By uscbknpt

A New Legacy

Jessica Portillo Cuellar portrait

A first-generation graduate, Jessica Portillo Cuellar aims to spread the word about the physical therapy profession to students in her hometown. 



After her parents immigrated to the United States from a war-torn El Salvador in the ’90s, Cuellar’s mother raised six children while working as a hotel housekeeper. “Some local schools were shut down due to the war, so my mother wasn’t able to pursue her education,” Cuellar explains. “She wanted us to do our very best in school. I understood that, if I wanted to make an impact on other people and not have to do as much physical labor as she did, I needed to have an education.”

Raised in a small, rural town in Mendocino County, Cuellar was accepted into a scholarship program that paired her with a mentor from seventh grade until she graduated from high school. “That was a huge opportunity,” the first-generation college graduate says. “My mentor was a big part of my life — and she still is to this day. That was the start of the academic role models I had growing up. And now, I want to be a role model for my siblings and the Latino community.”


The Power of the Trojan Family


Toward the end of her bachelor’s program in athletic training, Cuellar was introduced to physical therapy. What drew her to the practice are the connections established between healthcare provider and patient. “It’s not a one-and-done rehab visit,” she says. “You truly get to see these individuals — probably more than other healthcare professionals. My interest stemmed from the connections I had growing up and how people spent time to really get to know me.”

Cuellar’s smalltown roots run deep. Home is where she first discovered the power of community. Those qualities played a big part in why she chose to attend USC. “What made it stand out is the power of the Trojan family,” she says. “I really sought mentorship and alliance.”

One mentor who made a huge impact on Cuellar’s academic career is Cheryl Resnik DPT ’97, professor of clinical physical therapy. “She is a huge advocate for access, giving back and being of service,” Cuellar says. “At times, I underperformed, and I heard that Dr. Resnik advocated for me early on — that she believed in my academic abilities. I wouldn’t be the confident professional I am today if it wasn’t for her support, encouragement and guidance, which extend beyond physical therapy. That’s what being a mentor is about.”


Adding to the Legacy


Once the confetti settles following Commencement, Cuellar plans to make regular visits back to her hometown to raise awareness about the physical therapy profession. “I’d like to speak at school assemblies,” she explains. “That would be huge for kids from a really small town who don’t know what physical therapy is. I want to continue my community service with the Latino community. I came to USC to help grow the profession. I want to add to USC’s legacy and what we’re teaching our future generations.”