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Samsiya Ona

College: Lehman College
Awards: Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans, 2013

The Right Rx

Samsiya Ona (Lehman College, B.A. and B.S. summa cum laude in biology and anthropology/biology/chemistry, 2011) had never heard of the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans, so when a Harvard Medical School classmate asked whether this Togo-born student was applying for it, she decided to ask her mentors.

“I’m a second-year student. The days are hectic because of all the work we have to do, and the application deadline was just about two weeks away,” she recalls.

Her professors and mentors quickly agreed to write letters of support and help her with her application, while a classmate who had previously won the fellowship offered advice.

The result: She has up to $90,000 to support her graduate education over two years, including tuition, room, board and expenses. More than 1,050 applicants applied for only 30 fellowships, which are awarded on the basis of merit to new Americans – either permanent residents or naturalized citizens if born abroad, or the children of naturalized citizens – who are college seniors or early in their graduate programs.

“It’s an incredible honor,” Ona says. “I have scholarships from Harvard to cover almost all of my tuition, but I’ve had to take loans for housing and living expenses. This fellowship will make a big difference.”

Ona and her three siblings came to the United States when she was 18 to join their father in the South Bronx. She knew little English, although she was fluent in French and the African languages Ewe and Kotokoli. Dreaming of being a physician, she enrolled in a noncredit English class at Hunter College and, some months later, at Lehman College.

Told that she couldn’t possibly be accepted to medical school with her limited English, she enrolled in a pre-nursing program. “I started to think, ‘Why did I come here? Maybe I should go back home to Togo,'” she has said.

But professor Gary Schwartz, director of the Lehman Scholars Program, the campus’ honor program, responded to what he has called Ona’s “deft, agile and receptive intellect. Not one of my students has ever shown as much willingness to share her gifts with other students, unstintingly offering tutoring support to those in need.”

In her sophomore year, Ona switched to the premed program.

She won two awards from the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation in Science Research, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, to conduct environmental health research in Colombia and urology and neuroscience research in the Netherlands. Colombia, she says, was like Togo in terms of health care, for physicians were in short supply, nurses provided most of the care, and the costs were high.

Schwartz, Dr. Irwin Dannis from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and 1995 Lehman graduate Elliot Melendez, a Harvard Medical School alumnus, encouraged her to apply to Harvard. She got in there, as she did at the eight other medical schools to which she applied.

At Harvard, Ona was co-president of Women of Color in Medicine and Dentistry. She participated in a summer project in Zambia, helping to pilot a preventive health initiative for children.

“I was taking basic information on health status through screenings for my mentor’s NGO [Dr. Richard Bail founded Communities Without Borders, which educates orphans and vulnerable children in Africa]. My supervisor was Dr. Lise Johnson [a Harvard Medical School instructor and director of Well Newborn Nurseries at Brigham and Women’s Hospital], who started the NGO’s Healthy Learners Program. I also helped provide treatment when needed. Before establishing permanent health-care services, we first needed to determine what areas of preventive care to focus on,” she says.

She is doing her third-year clerkships at Massachusetts General Hospital and has her eye on a career in primary care.

“I want to be in a field that’s broad enough to be of use to the greatest amount of people, and that’s primary care,” she says.

She also is interested in infectious diseases but says it is too early in her training to know which specialty she may go into.