Medical school: University of Washington School of Medicine, 2019
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was very young I fantasized of being an astronaut, but when I discovered Indonesia did not have a space program, I needed a new plan. I still dream about someday landing on the moon, but as far as a geographically-convenient profession goes, I cannot remember a day that I did not want to be a physician.
What led to your interest in medicine?
Growing up in a small kampung (village) in Yogyakarta, Indonesia under circumstances in which education is a luxury and poverty is endemic, I quickly noticed that basic necessities such as healthcare, or rather the lack-there-of, becomes very exaggerated. Various experiences, particularly with my mother’s health, pushed me to understand the critical role that healthcare providers play for the community and I began to explore medicine as a career.
What experiences did you have that confirmed medicine was the right career for you?
A big life-changing event in my life was the earthquake that hit my hometown of Yogyakarta in 2006. This took over 6,000 lives and shook the lives of millions in mere seconds, leaving scars that are still felt today. My mother and I were very lucky to be unharmed, and we joined relief teams that worked miracles with very limited resources. Helping the medic team wash out wounds and wrap bandages was an incredibly humbling experience. Afterwards, shadowing physicians and taking the appropriate classes certainly confirmed that medicine was where I wanted to be.
Who or what inspired you?
My mother is my number one inspiration. She was very resourceful in handling our financial hurdles after my father left, but raising a child as a single parent in a culture that stigmatizes women for failing to keep her husband was the most admirable act I have ever witnessed. Despite the overt put-downs and difficulties, she was never afraid to face it all on her own. She is the epitome of leading by example. Her hard work and courage has truly instilled in me a sense of determination in the face of adversity. She is my rock.
Did anyone encourage or discourage you from applying to medical school?
I cannot remember anyone openly discouraging me, but there was a lot of skepticism from my community in Indonesia. In my culture then, one had to be somebody and come from somewhere to be able to make it in such a prestigious and noble profession. I was a strange-looking half-Indonesian-half-Caucasian girl who was raised by a poor single mother with a high school diploma. The combination of our financial standing and social status translated to a rather bleak future for me in Indonesia.
My saving grace came in the form of my paternal grandparents in Seattle, who had always been very kind and loving to me. They took me under their wing and helped me transition into life in the US when I was 15. I initially had rough start in the Seattle with the culture shock (it’s a thing!), but their support and encouragement helped me thrive here, and definitely allowed me to pursue my career goal of medicine.
How did you prepare for the medical school application process?
I had known that I wanted to gain a bit more life experience before starting medical school, so I had planned on taking two years off between undergraduate graduation and medical school. During this time, I was working full time in a basic sciences research lab, shadowing physicians, volunteering, and juggling my MCAT studies. I felt that when the application time rolled around, I was confident that taking this time off from school was the right thing for me to do – I had confirmed through the hours of shadowing that I had not changed my mind about medicine, I felt I had matured as a person in these two years, and I even eliminated some potential career choices outside of medicine. Fortunately, it all worked out and I was able to get into UW on my first application.
Did you have any concerns about taking the MCAT exam?
Yes, I was concerned that I did not have the complete knowledge base to perform well on the exam. Come test day, I was proven right, I did not. The fact is, there is no way that I could have mastered everything that my prep books covered, which in and of itself is not comprehensive. However, looking back on this, my biggest mistake was dwelling on that fear too much. I put so much pressure on myself that I stressed myself out and lost sight of why I was spending so much time studying.
What is your top MCAT tip for applicants preparing to take the exam?
Stay calm and do not put too much pressure on yourself. Easier said than done, I know, but take it from someone who had a panic attack at the beginning of the first passage: no good comes from being stressed. Yes, this exam is heavily weighted, but at the end of the day, it is one test that is standing between you and your dream. It just has to be done.
Did you have any fears going into medical school?
I was ecstatic! Medical school was my first step of realizing my lifelong dream of being a physician… and I could not wait to start.
How did you prepare for medical school before your first day?
I took a long vacation to reboot my brain and prepare myself for the upcoming challenge, and spent time with my family and friends. I am so glad I did that.
What made your medical school the right fit for you?
I really felt a sense of family at UW, even before I had gotten accepted. UWSOM made me feel like I really had something to contribute to in our not-so-small community. The faculty and staff have been wonderfully supportive, especially during difficult personal times. I think they have struck a nice balance between creating a nurturing environment and not too much hand-holding. It has worked out quite well for me, and I think many of my peers would also agree.
What kind of financial aid did you need to pay for medical school?
I unfortunately, like many, have to take out Stafford loans to fund my education. Fortunately, I also received a grant to reduce the tuition burden, and a couple of scholarships. I am incredibly relieved that UWSOM tuition is relatively low, so even though the amount of loans I am taking out are still daunting, I am confident they are completely manageable.
What memory stands out the most from your first day of medical school?
Not the first day, but the first patient we met sharing her story in front of my new class. She divulged incredibly personal experiences to a lecture hall full of strangers, and she ended with something along the lines of us getting used to patients opening up with personal stories, “because this is your new normal.” That was the first moment it hit me that my life was changing forever, and it completely redefined how I had imagined being a physician in my head. It was incredible.
What was your first year of medical school like?
It was a whirlwind! Absolutely crazy, but in a magical way. My cohort was the first of the new 18-month basic sciences curriculum, and the faculty, staff, and students had to be very flexible. The staff and faculty were very receptive to our feedback, which I am sure will help polish the program in the upcoming years. I also am amazed at how much I have changed. I would never have imagined I could learn and retain so much in such a short time. Synaptic plasticity is real! My biggest take home point from the first year is that I definitely know I chose the right path for me.
Did you have to change any of your study habits?
Yes, especially since I had been out of school for some time. In med school, I learned to be prepared to adjust my learning style to find something that works well for me – and this could change from one subject matter to another. Sometimes watching videos worked well, sometimes discussion-based learning was better. Albert Einstein once said, “the measure of intelligence is the ability to change.” I really do feel this is a good mantra for surviving medical school. The bottom line is I have to be flexible with my day-to-day study habits to make sure I am optimizing my learning abilities.
Please describe your participation in extra-curricular activities, volunteer work, research, or study-abroad opportunities during medical school.
Since school started I have been volunteering at RotaCare, a student-run clinic serving urban underserved populations. It has been an eye-opening experience to meet patients in our local communities who still do not have access to healthcare, and I am so honored to be a part of this team catering to this demographic’s needs. I also do a handful of other school-related volunteering opportunities as the occasion arises, and I cook (a great stress-reliever) for a restaurant that sends their food to homeless shelters.
I am shadowing physicians to get more exposure to the various specialties in medicine, and really, the more I learn about the various aspects of medicine, the more I realize there is so much more to learn!
This summer I received funding to pursue a research project in Dr. Holland’s neuro-oncology lab at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to study a potential therapeutic for a subtype of glioma and secondary glioblastoma.
I will be part of the admissions committee in the upcoming application year, sitting in on the interview panel, and will be staying busy with other student-run organizations.
What helps you manage your stress and stay motivated?
I remind myself that it is okay to take a break. I can only retain so much on a tired brain, so when I feel the need to, I take a moment for “self-care time.” For me, this is either putting on my gloves for kickboxing with my close friends or taking a hot yoga class. I have fallen into a routine now and have fixed times for these activities, but the bottom line is it is important to have something to look forward to outside of my academics.
How do you balance your personal time with medical school?
I make the time for it. When I am studying, I do not have my computer on anything other than my study material. This helps me stay focused and as efficient as possible, so at the end of the day I still have time to spend with my partner, friends, and family.
What makes your story unique?
My upbringing was a bit different from many. Although I am half Caucasian American, since I was born and raised in Indonesia, my move to the US later in life is more akin to a first generation immigrant’s experience. I was only 15 when I moved here, but it was definitely a struggle to adapt to the overall cultural difference. Additionally, I basically moved here alone. My paternal grandparents were here, and gave me much needed support, but my mother still lives in Indonesia, and I have only seen her four times in short visits in the last decade. I also miss bantering with my cousins and spending time with my old friends. My mother was never able to make it to college, and neither did my estranged father, so the fact that I am pursuing a graduate degree, and from an esteemed program the US nonetheless, is beyond what I could have ever imagined for myself. I don’t listen to much rap, but Drake’s, “starting from the bottom now we here” really stuck with me. To me, this journey has been an absolute miracle.
What advice do you have for applicants considering a career in medicine?
If you really want it, go for it. There may be a million reasons to quit, and it is definitely a challenging path, but the ability to touch lives is an absolute privilege worth all the effort.
If you had the opportunity to talk to a potential medical student, what would you tell him/her, off the top of your head?
Surround yourself with people who create a positive environment and build you up. This really goes a long way in an often stressful journey.