Aisa Iyawe

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Aisa, an immigrant who experienced homelessness after moving to the US, says her hardships provided opportunities for growth and motivated her to become a doctor and work with underserved populations.

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Undergraduate: University of California, Los Angeles 2014
Major: Neuroscience
Medical school: Keck School of Medicine at USC MD/MPH Program, 2021

What experiences did you have that confirmed medicine was the right career for you?

From a young age, I had always liked the idea of working in the medical field. I spent a lot of time doing pretend surgeries and reading elementary books about the human body. But my desire to become a physician really developed during college. Although uncertainty about my future initially clouded my ambitions, I decided to learn more about being a physician. I participated in a premedical program and got a glimpse into the lives of medical students and doctors. I took courses on improving study and time management skills, applied what I learned to my classes, and I was able to raise my GPA. I also shadowed physicians and volunteered at health fairs, administering health screenings and educating community members. I saw firsthand the impact of economic class and social factors on health. For example, the convenience and low cost of unhealthy food or the difficulty of finding transportation to a hospital. Since I come from a similar community, these observations really motivated me to work in areas not provided with adequate medical care.

Did anyone encourage or discourage you from applying to medical school?

My family and friends were very encouraging. They helped me reach my goals when my self-doubt started getting in my way.

How did you prepare for the medical school application process?

I knew that I was going to take time off before starting med school, so I chose to really take my time with my application and make it flawless. I started my application after graduating from college and gave myself ample time to complete everything. I gave myself three months to write and perfect my personal statement. I also looked up some secondary questions and started writing my answers. I finished my application so that I could submit it on the first day of the application cycle.

Did you have any concerns about taking the MCAT exam?

I’m not the best test-taker. Even when I know the answer, I overthink and choose the wrong one. I always assume test-writers are trying to trick me. It didn’t bother me as much in college as long as I was happy with my grades, but I was very scared that I’d doubt myself and choose the wrong answers on the MCAT. Taking a lot (and I mean A LOT) of practice tests helped me overcome this test-taking deficiency.

What is your top MCAT tip for applicants preparing to take the exam?

Try not to stress out. I know it’s easier said than done, but relaxation and confidence have a significant positive impact on your score and your wellbeing.

Did you have any fears going into medical school?

I took a year and a half off before starting med school. I worried that, in that amount of time, I had lost all the skills needed to be a successful student.

What made your medical school the right fit for you?

My dream is to become and Emergency Department doctor. I’m also very passionate about working in medically underserved communities. USC offers one of the highest ranked Emergency Medicine residency programs in the nation and the school constantly stresses the importance of helping underserved communities. After I learned this, I realized Keck is the perfect school for me.

Did you have to change any of your study habits?

Definitely! I wasn’t used to learning so much in such little time. It took a while for me to finally figure out which study methods worked for me. The sheer volume of information made cramming impossible for me. I had to learn to start studying as soon as classes started and pace myself.

What helps you manage your stress and stay motivated?

LAC-USC is a Level-One Trauma Center. As a student, I can shadow in the ED as often as I want. When I forget what I’m working towards, I shadow at the hospital and the intensity and realness of the cases helps me remember my goal. When I’m in the ED, I watch the doctors and think, “That’ll be me one day.” So when I go back home, I am motivated to study so I can be like the physicians I shadow.

What do you enjoy most about medical school?

I truly enjoy learning about everything medicine related. I especially love seeing patients. In my school, we start seeing patients every week starting from the second week of our first year. Though it was scary at first, as time went on, we learned to take incredible histories. As we learned special maneuvers in class, we got to practice them on real patients. Whenever I started to stress out because of tests or assignments, seeing patients every week was very cathartic and reminded me that I was working towards a bigger and more significant goal than passing a test.

What surprised you the most about medical school?

I was surprised by the amount of information we were expected to memorize and learn in a short period of time. Before starting medical school, my friend, another UCLA alumna who graduated with a degree in Neuroscience, told me, “I learned more about the brain in the neuro block than I did during all four years of undergrad.” I thought she was exaggerating. I was wrong. But I was equally surprised by how my school guided us and helped us to adapt to the challenges we faced.

Are you a member of a unique demographic? If so, please describe how that shaped your medical school experience.

I’m an immigrant who was raised in a low-income community after moving to the US. I was born in Nigeria but when my older brother passed away, my family moved to Riverside, California. We were homeless for two years. Finally, we moved into an apartment but moved many times until I was 12. By then, I had already attended seven different elementary and middle schools, making it very hard to adapt to the new learning environments. My mom attended school while working as a substitute teacher and my dad worked hours away from our city. When I was 12, my parents tried to buy a house in an underprivileged city where my mom worked as a teacher. In that city, I went to a school with an Academic Performance Index rating of 3. Teen pregnancies were prevalent and gang violence was common, claiming many lives, including the life of a friend of mine. My teachers were indifferent towards the importance of college and studying, making it difficult for me to develop proficient study skills. When my parents separated, the house foreclosed and my mom, brothers, and I lived in 5 homes in 3 years due to monetary turmoil. In college, I was one of the few minorities in my classes and had to overcome feelings of inferiority to succeed. These hardships provided incredible opportunities for growth and motivated me to become a doctor and work with underserved populations.

If you had the opportunity to talk to a potential medical student, what would you tell him/her, off the top of your head?

Med school is extremely hard but also extremely rewarding. I think the most successful students are the ones who are passionate about medicine. If you’re passionate and keep your goal in mind, the work doesn’t seem overwhelming. It actually becomes enjoyable.

Also, don’t be fooled into believing that everyone else has it all together. Everyone struggles but most students hide their struggles very well. Don’t be afraid of asking for help and don’t feel discouraged if you have difficulty coping with the demands of med school. You are not alone, even if it feels like you are sometimes. There will always be people who are willing to help.

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