Juliet Siena Okoroh

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Juliet, a first-generation immigrant to the U.S., started off working her way through community college and took two years off before medical school.

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Undergraduate: University of Georgia, 2007
Major: Biology
Graduate school: Harvard School of Public Health MPH, Health Policy and Management, 2013
Medical school: University of California San Diego School of Medicine, 2014
Specialty: General Surgery, Surgical Oncology
Interests:  Surgical capacity building in resource-limited settings, health systems strengthening, health care innovations, and health IT

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I thought I was going to become a lawyer. I was not very exposed to the opportunities of becoming a physician the way I grew up in Nigeria.

What led to your interest in medicine?

I always had a passion for helping others. I often volunteered at homeless shelters, participated in mission trips, and was motivated by serving the community. I participated in a study abroad program in Tanzania and was inspired by the very compassionate physicians I met who were dedicated to practicing medicine and public health. I subsequently shadowed physicians at a regional medical center, and I knew medicine was right for me.

Who or what inspired you?

My faith truly inspires me. I always believe that for whom much is given, much is expected. Hence the stories of the less privileged inspire me to do more with what I have been given.

What made you decide to go to medical school?

I made the decision to go to medical school after I signed up for the Peace Corps and was supposed to serve in Cameroon. I shortly realized I wanted to solidify my skill sets to best serve communities similar to the one I grew up in. Furthermore, I worked as a congressional staffer for U.S. Senator Tom Harkin and became interested in the intersection of clinical medicine and health policy. So, I applied to medical schools that would allot me the opportunity to train in medicine and public health.

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

Of course. As an underrepresented minority student, I feel the statistics are discouraging, particularly when you financed your way through college working two jobs. Many people would ask me during the application process how I could afford medical school or say, “people like you don't go to medical school,” probably because I am a first-generation physician.

Was there one person who stands above the others as your inspiration to go to medical school?

There are numerous individuals. I have been very lucky to have met great mentors along the way. Dr. Dunning, who was one of the vice presidents at my undergraduate program, really encouraged me. It is very important to seek mentors. My sisters were also very supportive of me making the decision.

How did you prepare for the medical school application process?

I worked. I got a job, after I graduated undergrad, working at an air force base, which allowed me to acquire funds to be able to pay for the study materials, take the MCAT® exam, and pay for the applications.

Did you have any concerns about taking the MCAT® exam?

Not particularly. I knew it was a test I had to overcome to get to the next step. Once it was over, it was really over!

Did you need financial aid to pay for medical school?

Absolutely! With the average debt of medical students approaching $200,000 and poor financial support up to this point, I certainly knew that financial aid was the only way I would be able to fulfill my dream of becoming a physician. I chose UCSD because I felt like the faculty were really interested in me and made the best efforts to offer me financial resources, which made it easy to concentrate on being a medical student without having to worry about how I was going to pay my rent.

Do you remember your first day of medical school? What memory stands out the most?

Yes, I actually do. I remembered our first task was to practice blood draws on each other. I am typically a difficult stick, and I remember I let my classmate try several times but she was not able to successfully draw my blood.  I could feel her disappointment, so I went to my dean, secretly explaining the situation to her. My dean came by and offered my classmate to draw hers. My classmate was successful at first try at drawing my dean’s blood.

What was your first year of medical school like?

Certainly challenging, especially being far away from home and worrying about whether I made the right decision. But it was quite a rewarding time, because I formed some of the most amazing bonds with my classmates.

What obstacles did you overcome in your medical school journey?

I would not say I had to overcome many unique obstacles, more like I was creating opportunities. The Program in Medical Education-Health Equity really challenged me in many different ways. We were involved in various mentorship programs and leadership opportunities on campus and the community. It can be a bit of a challenge because there are not many students that look like me that are in medical school, so sometimes you feel the pressure to do more to help underrepresented minorities in terms of recruitment. However, this is balanced by the reward of the impact you could have on people’s lives. I often speak to local high school students in underrepresented communities and I am often amazed how many of them had thought because of their background, medical school was unreachable.

What makes your story unique?

My story is very unique in many ways. As a first-generation immigrant to the United States with a single mom (who dealt with the luck of the draw in playing the U.S. visa lottery after she lost a job for a few years), I certainly feel very lucky that we won. When I came to the United States, I was 9 years old and in JSS3, which is the equivalent of 9th grade in the U.S. However, because of my age I was placed into the 5th grade. After three years, my mother decided to send me back to Nigeria to complete high school. After graduating, I came back to the U.S. and started off at a community college, working all sorts of jobs to afford my tuition. I transferred to University of Georgia, completed my bachelor’s, and worked on Capitol Hill before attending medical school. I believe my experiences living in a village in Nigeria, as well as being underrepresented in the U.S., certainly makes me unique. This is truly my inspiration for working with underserved communities.

How did you balance the demands of medical school with these additional obligations and challenges?

Church is often my escape. I really enjoy attending service. Furthermore, staying close to my family has really made a difference in difficult times. I am glad that the faculty and staff have been very supportive.

What did you enjoy most about medical school?  

The people. My deans are very supportive, which makes a huge difference.

What surprised you the most about medical school?

How much fun it could be. I absolutely enjoy it. According to a Gallup poll, only about 30% of Americans are “engaged or involved in, enthusiastic about” their workplace. I am glad to be part of the 30% that enjoys what they do.

Please describe your participation in special programs such as volunteer work, research, or study abroad opportunities during medical school or residency.

While in medical school I was heavily involved in the Student National Medical Association as chapter president my first two years. This allowed me to participate in pathway programs such as the undergraduate mentorship program and community service. I was also involved in Doc of Day, a program which brings underrepresented minority high school students to our campus to show them what it is like to be a medical student. I also participated in a research project in Cape Town, South Africa, during my first year of medical school. As I approached my senior year, I became more involved in research projects related to my specialty of interest (surgery) and sat on editorial boards for journals and question banks. During my master’s at the Harvard School of Public Health, I worked on projects at the Center for Surgery and Public Health, with an IT company, and with the Ministry of Health in China. 

How do you balance your personal time with medical school?

You just do it! I schedule everything, including personal time. It makes it easier to ensure that you are finding time for yourself outside work. I still find some time to attend my favorite shows and events when I make sure to put them on my calendar.

What advice do you have for new applicants considering a career in medicine?

I always tell applicants to talk with as many people as they can. I often conducted informational interviews with people in different stages of their career just to get a sense of how they made decisions, why, and what they would change about their process. It can be quite an insightful experience, and you learn more about yourself during the process. I would also encourage applicants to have mentors along the spectrum of training. I have more mentees than my time allots, but they truly inspire me and I am glad I can offer some advice to them.

Do you have additional information or thoughts to share that would be helpful to prospective students?  

Yes, the Careers in Medicine® website is very useful in deciding on premed summer internships, medical schools, and choice of residency. I have used the program a ton. I would also tell them to stay encouraged and up to the challenge. After five years of my MD-MPH program I can still say I would have made the same decision to do this.

What advice would you give to medical students interested in pursuing a career track similar to yours? 

I would encourage them to take some time to discover themselves. I took two years off between undergrad and medical school, and honestly, it shaped my decision and career. I would encourage them to be flexible and adaptable. Medical school is all about changes; you change, and people change around you including your family. Remaining flexible and employing frequent introspection has allowed me to be comfortable with situations regardless of how difficult they can appear. A sense of moral character and purpose also helps with dealing with difficult situations in managing patients. Lastly, we have to remember to not stop caring. Sometimes it is easy to get self-absorbed with the demands of medicine. However, a sense of relativism that others, including our patients, may have it worse than us makes it easy to continue to care for patients while maintaining the uttermost respect and dignity.

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