Yasaman Ataei

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Yasaman, an immigrant with English as her second language, struggled with the verbal section of the MCAT exam, but kept a positive attitude and strengthened other parts of her application.

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Undergraduate: University of California Berkeley, 2014
Major: Molecular and Cell Biology
Medical school: Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, 2020


What makes your story unique?

It was nearly 7 years ago when my family sold almost everything, packed our entire lives in 8 suitcases, got on a plane in Iran and moved across the globe to the United States. The decision to leave home is never an easy one, but it was particularly hard for my family as it required my parents to abandon their jobs at the peak of their careers, say goodbye to their friends and family, move to a country they had never been to and start all over again. Many questioned our decision and others tried to discourage us. Yet, my parents had their minds set. They wanted to move for more educational opportunities for their children and a brighter future for the family.

I left Iran right after graduating from high school and moved to United States to begin college. It didn’t take me long to realize what a big challenge was ahead of me. In addition to cultural, economic, and language barriers, I now had to navigate an entirely new educational system which didn’t bear any resemblance to what we had back home. It felt like being born all over again at the age of 18. Even though it seemed like an impossible challenge, I was determined to succeed and take advantage of the opportunities that my new home had to offer. 

What led to your interest in medicine?

Growing up in a household with two physician parents, I was already interested in medicine, but I was curious to find out how medicine was practiced in the United States. Shortly after my arrival, I started volunteering in a local hospital where I had the opportunity to interact with a very diverse group of patients. I learned a lot about the healthcare system in the US through my conversations with the care providers. During this experience, I was also introduced to research (something I had never been exposed to before) and its critical role in the modern practice of medicine. Soon after, I got involved with translational and clinical research which I continue to conduct to this day as a medical student. Through years of research, I developed critical thinking skills, learned about evidence-based medicine, worked in big and small professional teams and developed essential skills which I use every day in medical school.

Who or what inspired you?

My initial inspiration definitely came from my parents. They dedicated most of their careers to serving underserved population in rural Iran. Some of their patients were not able to afford basic care, in which case my parents would voluntarily provide free care. Their hard work and service to their community has always inspired me and provided me with a deep sense of empathy for individuals with limited access to health care. Witnessing the impact they made on the lives of almost every member of this community fortified my long-term goal of pursuing a career in medicine.

After moving to the United States, I had the privilege of shadowing and working alongside many esteemed physicians. During my gap year before starting medical school, I completed a fellowship at NIH where I met many inspiring physicians whose work impacted patients around the world. Hearing about their work, and the advances they pioneered in medicine, further confirmed my interest in pursuing a career in medicine. 

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

As a recent immigrant with English as my second language, I struggled with the verbal section of MCAT both in my preparation and on the test day. Unfortunately, my Verbal score was on the lower side compared to my science scores. I was discouraged by many advisors from applying to medical school. They thought no school would ever look favorably at a non-native speaker applicant with a low verbal score. However, I was lucky to have the support of my family and many mentors who encouraged me to apply and try my best despite my less than ideal score. So I decided to strengthen other aspects of my application, apply to the schools I was interested in and keep a positive attitude. I strongly advise applicants who might be in a similar situation to keep a positive attitude and not to be discouraged.

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

Try to learn how to apply knowledge and not just memorize facts. This is especially important for the sciences sections where you are often asked to apply your knowledge of sciences to an unfamiliar scenario. This is a skill which comes with practice, so make sure you give yourself enough time to prepare for the test.   

What made your medical school the right fit for you?

The collaborative culture at VCU and the way our training emphasizes patient-centered care made the school the right fit for me. We started learning proper bedside manner as early as the first week and we’ve been continuously practicing these skills throughout the year. One of the main concepts that I always try to remember is that, “patients don’t care how much you know, unless they know how much you care.”

What memory stands out the most from your first day of medical school?

I remember talking to my classmates and feeling touched by their unique life stories and their interesting journeys to medicine. I recall feeling very excited to be part of such diverse class and to have the opportunity train alongside such brilliant and caring people. 

What was your first year of medical school like?

It was nothing like I expected it to be! The first year was more challenging, more fun and way more rewarding than I anticipated. The great thing about the first year is that you get to learn a lot about medicine but you learn even more about yourself. I learned that I’m more resilient than I thought. I learned how to overcome disappointment, how to incorporate criticism, how to manage stress and how to strive for the best. This is also a time when you get a chance to get involved with various extracurricular activities and maybe explore areas of medicine that you were not previously exposed to.

What helps you manage your stress and stay motivated?

My family and friends. I have a very strong family support. My family has been through many challenges together and we managed to survive one of the most stressful events that could happen to anyone – immigration. I think those experiences brought us much closer to each other. I am also blessed with steadfast friends, both from college and medical school, who are very supportive and always there for me when I need them.

How did you prepare for the medical school application process?

I followed my interests and got involved with activities that allowed me to grow as a person and develop skills that will eventually make a better doctor. My advice to pre-meds is to get involved with a few meaningful experiences that you’re really interested in and continue doing them for as long as you can.  Don’t get too distracted with checking off the checklist. You will be surprised how an activity, which might not seem very relevant to medicine on the surface, can help you prepare to become a good medical student and eventually a good doctor. 

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

First and foremost, make sure you love medicine and want to pursue it for the right reasons. Unlike many other careers, medicine requires long years of training and many personal sacrifices. In fact, I think medicine is a lifestyle as well as a career. So choose wisely! Secondly, the medical school application is a very demanding and stressful process which needs patience and persistence. The key to success is to stay positive, work hard and continue to improve yourself as a person and as an applicant. Also don’t forget to take a break from time to time, have fun and take care of your psychological well-being.   

Do you have any advice for other immigrants considering this career path?

Each individual has a unique path to medicine, but this path maybe more challenging for recent immigrants such as myself. However, challenging doesn’t mean impossible. Compared to students who’ve lived in the US their entire lives, people like me have to face some unique obstacles many of which will be resolved with time. It will take some time to adapt to the new environment, integrate into a new community and start to flourish. So, be patient and remember that the US is a country where immigrants boast a rich history of success stories. You might need to work a little harder compared to your peers to reach a certain point, but you will get there eventually!

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