I grew up believing that excellence is not an option, but rather an obligation.
I breezed through high school. I didn’t have to study hard to do well on a test. I just got it. School came easy to me. I assumed college would be the same. I was wrong.
I started my first quarter at Stanford University with the notorious Chem 31A—Chemical Principles I—because that’s what every other pre-med was doing. Chemical Principles, I thought, how bad could this be? It couldn’t be much harder than my high school chemistry class, right?
I approached Chem 31A the same way I approached high school—by just showing up for class and doing the problem sets. I barely made it through the class. I had never seen Cs before in my life, and suddenly, they just kept coming. Worst of all, at the time, it seemed like everyone else around me had it all figured out. Everyone but me seemed to have the pre-med playbook.
Over winter break, I anxiously awaited my grades. Slowly but surely, the grades came in. In the end, I had earned a 2.4 for that quarter. I couldn’t pull myself away from my glowing computer screen. How was I going to get into medical school with a science GPA below a 3.0?
I cried. And I cried. And I cried. But after burying myself in bed for days, I realized crying wasn’t going to raise my GPA. I finally accepted the fact that the way I learned in high school did not work in college. I needed to do something different.
I needed help. I accepted the fact that seeking help is not a weakness, but rather a tool for achieving success. I set an appointment with an academic skills coach to reevaluate and modify my study habits. I learned that my GPA is not a measure of my intelligence, but rather a test of my resilience. If I gave up now, how would I ever achieve my goal?
So I kept going. I kept going to office hours. I kept working with my study group. I kept doing practice problems. And I kept a positive attitude. There were times I would get knocked down, but I got right back up and kept going.
Soon my Cs turned into Bs. And those Bs turned into As. And in 2018, I graduated from Stanford University!
But my journey was not over. In order to apply to medical school, I still had to complete a year-long physics course and the dreaded Medical College Admission Test (MCAT).
Another challenge stood in my way. I had no idea how I would pay for my evening physics class. As the deadline to make the payment approached, I remembered what I had learned about asking for help. I texted Mrs. Wright, my alumni counselor from my high school, Boston Prep. Boston Prep, a 6-12 charter public school in the city of Boston, supports alumni throughout college through a unique program called the Persistence Project.
As part of the Persistence Project, Boston Prep alumni can apply for microgrants to assist with small, but insurmountable costs that threaten their ability to continue their studies. Soon after I applied, I was incredibly grateful to learn I had been granted the funding needed to complete my last required course.
The following summer, I applied to medical school, full of anxiety and fear. Those thoughts of self-doubt eased as I began to be offered interviews at schools I never thought would even look at me twice. I am proud to share that in the end, I received six acceptances to medical schools.
As a student in high school, I did not appreciate the meaning or power of our Boston Prep mascot—the Phoenix, a mythological bird that is reborn in the face of challenge, emerging stronger than it was before. After all the obstacles in my journey, I have a better appreciation of all my high school instilled in me—of what it means to be a Phoenix. It means being willing to ask for help. It means leaving work early to attend office hours with my physics professor. It means late nights studying for the MCAT, with tired eyes, but a committed heart. It means believing that the impossible is possible. It means that though your inner fire may, at times, dim, you will never—NEVER—allow it to burn out.
As I continue through this journey in medicine, as a Black woman, I know I will encounter obstacles greater than grades. Obstacles that may shake my confidence or even challenge my commitment to medicine. There will be more tears and moments of defeat to come, but I’ll keep going.
I’ll keep going for that Black girl who wants to be a doctor, so that she knows that it has been done and can be done.
I’ll keep going for my sister, so that she knows if they don’t give you a seat at their table, you make your own table and invite others to sit.
I’ll keep going for my future patients, so that they not only have an excellent clinician but an advocate who feels and understands them.
Oluwaseun Adebagbo is a 2014 graduate of Boston Prep and a 2018 graduate of Stanford University. She serves as an education program assistant at Stanford University School of Medicine and is preparing to begin studies to earn her medical degree.