Even With All The Roadblocks In Her Path, She Got Accepted To Medical School And Created A Non-Profit To Help Remove Barriers To Education
On December 10, 2018 Sotonye Douglas received an email with “Congratulations” written in the subject line.
When she began to read the the letter, her eyes immediately welled up with tears. The news was overwhelming. In an instant, her life was completely transformed. Her lifelong dream was coming into focus in a big, big way
“It is with great pleasure that I inform you of your acceptance to the Doctorate of Medicine (MD) program” read the letter. After failing chemistry, 15 rejections and working countless hours on the closing shift at McDonald’s to pay for it all, Douglas was finally admitted to The Frank H Netter M.D School of Medicine at Quinnipiac University.
“I could feel the tension of years of failure and doubt seep away and could finally breathe,” recall Douglas about the proudest moment in her life. “I was going to be a doctor.”
Ever since she was a little girl, this first generation American, a daughter of a Jamaican mother and a Nigerian father had longed to be a doctor. “But there weren’t any doctors in my family. And we didn’t live in the nicest part of Brooklyn so there weren’t even any doctors in my neighborhood,” says Douglas. She vividly recalls how one of her junior high school classmates was shot in the head over a pair of sneakers. “Each day I left my house wondering if I would return home,” she shares.
What further solidified her drive was when she was 14 and met an African American female physician for the first time. “Meeting Dr. Rhonda Cambridge was confirmation for me. I thought, you can do this. This is what you want and it’s going to happen,” says Douglas.
Douglas saw an important role model in Dr. Cambridge. “She constantly reminded her patients that optimizing their health was paramount to leading productive lives,” says Douglas. “She was compassionate, trustworthy and dedicated. I wanted to reciprocate these qualities with my future patients.”
That very same year Douglas began working with Urban Arts Partnership. The organization is devoted to enriching the lives of inner-city young people through art.
At Urban Arts Douglas worked with Anna Strout who led their social justice Media Lab program. “She taught me the ropes—how to research pressing issues, interview people, and advocate for causes,” says Douglas of her profoundly important mentor. “This cemented my desire to be in a profession where I help people.”
Working with Strout Douglas thrived in ways she never knew possible. “I found my voice and learned the importance of storytelling,” she shares. Under Strout’s guidance Douglas helped birth ideas that began as scribbles on paper and ultimately blossomed into documentaries shown at the Tribeca Film Festival and The Human Rights Watch Festival. Their film, Type Cast, brought awareness to the devastating impact of diabetes and how it disproportionately affects low-income communities of color.
“This created a spark for public health and community action within me,” says Douglas. “I learned about how lack of parks, recreational centers and reduced outreach impacts the health of a community.” She could envision herself becoming a physician who worked in an underserved community.
Strout also remained a force in Douglas’ life. “Anna saw the potential I had as a teenager and poured in her love and support,” shares Douglas. “She encouraged me to push outside of my comfort zone and apply to colleges away from home.”
As much as Douglas worked hard to get on the path to becoming a doctor there continued to be so many roadblocks in her way, especially financial ones. During high school she worked for $7.25 an hour to pay for college applications. “When I got to college I had to work hours to support myself, often choosing between basic necessities and school resources,” says Douglas who was a student at SUNY University at Albany double majoring in Human Biology and Art.
Constantly trying to juggle the demands of work and school, she failed general chemistry. Unable to afford the $2,000 MCAT prep course she did the best she could and studied with old books that were donated to her. Scoring in the 19th percentile she applied to fifteen medical schools and was rejected by every one. “I lost $2200 on the applications alone,” she shares.
But Douglas kept going. Unwilling to be defeated she enrolled in the Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine to get a master of biomedical sciences. She needed to prove she was capable of succeeding on a higher level. She took out student loans. “For the first time, instead of just surviving, I was able to focus on my schoolwork,” she says. “I went into beast mode.”
When Douglas took the MCAT again, she scored in the 73rd percentile. “Statistically speaking I should not be a medical student. After one hardship after the next, the odds were stacked against me from the start,” she says. “But my story is one of resilience, determination, and perseverance.”
Once Douglas was admitted to medical school she thought about all the hurdles she faced. “As I reflected on my academic journey, it occurred to me how it was almost derailed by simple barriers like affording books and paying for application fees,” she says. In fact, the cost for prep courses, conferences, application fees and other expenses is more than $10,000. And that is separate from the cost of medical school.
That didn’t sit right with Douglas. “I wondered how many students from similarly disadvantaged communities were giving up on their dreams because of similar financial burdens,” she says. “I wondered how many bright, driven, compassionate people were excluded from the medical field because of something as simple as paying for books.”
Fueled by an overwhelming need to do something, seven months ago Douglas launched The 1001 Aspirations Project which recycles prep course materials shipping them to students in need. The program is a 501c3 partner project under The Fund for The City of New York. All donations, including books, are tax-deductible and 100% of the proceeds go to the project.
Now in her third year of medical school, Douglas’ goal is to help 1001 students by 2026. “I understand the need to want one person to believe in your vision and passion,” she says. “Poverty and economic class should not restrict one’s ability to attain higher education.”
When thinking about her achievements, Douglas credits her strong support system and those who helped get her though. In fact, it was only fitting that Strout joined her as she earned her white coat and took the Hippocratic Oath for the first time. “I owe so much to my mentors like Anna who go above and beyond to support me,” she shares. “Sometimes I wonder how I became so lucky to become her student. And I think of paying it forward.”
Douglas also points to her parents who immigrated to the United States in the 1980’s and continually persevered. “I come from cultures that are tenacious and driven to survive,” she says. “My parents instilled a great work ethic despite financial struggles and other setbacks. We may not have had as much as others but the little we did have we found ways to give back.”
What also kept her going, especially during those hardest moments, was her hunger for change. “My determination was birthed from a desire for better,” says Douglas. “I never wanted to struggle financially ever again. I kept going because I wanted a better life.”
And what is her advice to others who face similar challenges? “Focus on your goals and don’t let anything interfere with your vision,” she says. “Find mentors aligned with your goal and employ that support system when you feel defeated.”