Guam student Jia Jia Zhang student journeys to Harvard Medical School
Never in her wildest dreams did Jia Jia Zhang think she could attend Harvard College, much less Harvard Medical School.
“Being accepted is an absolutely insane and an incredible honor. Just like the undergraduate education, Harvard Medical School offers a plethora of resources and access to prestigious faculty members,” Zhang said.
The 2016 St. John’s alumnus currently resides in Dededo and works closely with the Infection Control Department at Guam Memorial Hospital as a program coordinator and data analyst.
The call to action
One of the pivotal experiences that kindled Zhang’s passion for medicine and allowed her to envision herself as a physician was when she took part in the Aloha Medical Mission as a surgical assistant.
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“Being able to observe numerous surgeries up close, relish in the artistry of surgery and work with patients from their diagnosis to their procedure and discharge was extremely gratifying,” she said.
Zhang shadowed general surgeons, oral maxillofacial surgeons, anesthesiologists, dentists, and nurses — gaining an expansive view of medicine as well as the teamwork necessary to execute an operation. She was able to see early on what it would be like at the end of medical school, which in turn solidified her confidence in pursuing medicine.
A taste of the real world
While working at GMH, she also had the chance to participate in ICU rounds where she was floored by how complicated the medical cases were and how quick thorough decisions are made to preserve the patients’ lives.
“I have come across so many kind, caring and inspiring physicians, so my decision to become an M.D. has been greatly influenced by encountering so many great role models throughout my life,” Zhang mentioned.
The Harvard experience
Attending Harvard as an undergraduate student was an incredibly enriching and exciting experience for the alumna. Since the university has such a large endowment, they are extremely generous with their financial aid and do everything within their power to enable students to participate in student events, research, study abroad programs and extra classes.
Outside of academia, Zhang had the privilege to meet students from all over the world. Coming from Guam, one of the immediate challenges was the far distance from her family. She was fortunate to have quickly found a core group of friends that supported and assisted one another throughout the years.
Getting down to business
As a pre-med student, it was very easy for Zhang to overcommit to activities. To maintain a healthy balance, she started to dial back on the number of extracurriculars, and invest that time to focus on her academics. From preparing for upcoming exams to keeping a to-do journal, these established habits had positive effect on her.
“By having a schedule and sticking to it, I was able to study more effectively and reduce a significant amount of stress by knowing that I had prepared in advance and done all that I could,” Zhang said. “Additionally, I would attend kendo practices or exercise and eat with my friends to relieve any lingering stress.”
The work paid off as her research experiences expanded her knowledge and views on scientific inquiry, challenged her to approach issues and problem-solve from multiple angles and inspired her to conduct further research in the hopes that one day it would improve people’s lives.
Pushing the limits
Besides enhancing her abilities for HMS, Zhang wanted to take advantage of the expansive liberal arts curriculum that the university offered. As a result, she finished a degree in East Asian Studies. She mentioned that the skills she acquired from her degree would play to her advantage as a future doctor. She even found the time to take up Japanese, religion, philosophy, art and history.
“I believe having majored in the humanities has benefited me significantly in that I was able to gain deeper insight into various cultures and ways of thought,” she said. “Being a doctor requires that we take into account people’s backgrounds, their lived experiences and assessing what treatment is most feasible and effective.”
Have what it takes?
Zhang believes that medicine is a profession that continually tests and retests the convictions of those who pursue it. Starting from the premedical journey, students must be constantly motivated and serious about pursuing their studies all the way through.
“From there, many medical schools look for students passionate about volunteering, researching and working in a clinical setting,” Zhang said. “If all of the time spent on those extracurriculars are not gratifying and worthwhile, then it can be a sign that medicine might not be a good fit.”
Even after one becomes an M.D., she believes that the daily struggles, challenges and stresses that come with the profession will also be a test on the motivation to pursue the profession.
“All of this is not to say that every part of the process must or always is enjoyable, but whenever doubt or fear crosses my mind about pursuing an M.D., I remember the bigger picture and mission I have for medicine and this helps me push through those more difficult times,” said Zhang.
Once Zhang completes medical school, she’ll be ready to bring her expertise back home. She is currently open to all specialties, but she has greatly enjoyed pediatrics, surgery and intensive care.
“I feel that I would gain the most fulfillment from serving the local community and taking care of the people who have taken care of me,” Zhang said. “Another reason for why I hope to return home is because I have so many people from Guam to thank for helping me get to where I am now today. The successes I have experienced are definitely not mine alone.”
When she asked those physicians how she can repay them back, they told her that they simply hope she pays it forward.
“In accordance with their words, I believe it’s part of my duty to also return home and mentor students from Guam, so that they too can become physicians who hopefully return and continue paying the favor forward.”