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Meet the Class of 2011: Samsiya Ona

May 19, 2011


Samsiya Ona

This is the fourth in a series of profiles of Lehman College 2011 graduates.

When Samsiya Ona returned to her South Bronx home on March 4, after an interview at a medical school, it was already 2 a.m., but she decided to check her email anyway. Maybe one of the dozen medical schools that she applied to might have gotten back to her. Indeed, one of them did. In her inbox was an email with a subject line—"Welcome to Harvard Medical School"—that said it all.

"I literally started screaming, but I didn't want to wake up my family," says Ona, who immigrated to the United States with her siblings in 2006 from the West African nation of Togo. Instead, she called her friends, "the ones I knew would still be up at that time."

As a child, Ona dreamed of becoming a doctor. But when she came to the U.S. as a native French speaker, her English skills were lacking, despite having taken some English classes in high school ("we didn't speak that much English in English class," she says). After settling in with her father and five siblings, she enrolled in a non-credit English class at Hunter College and, a few months later, in the Lehman Scholars Program at Lehman College.

At Lehman, she was advised that her limited English would make it almost impossible to get through medical school, and she decided to enroll instead in the pre-nursing program. "I was in the program, but only half-heartedly," she says. "I started to think, 'Why did I come here? Maybe I should go back home to Togo'."

Ona credits Professor Gary Schwartz, director of the Lehman Scholars Program, for telling her that, however difficult it might be, she should pursue her dream. "She has a deft, agile and receptive intellect," says Professor Schwartz. "She is just a superb student and an uncommon person. 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." During her sophomore year, she enrolled in Lehman's pre-med program.

Inspired by a trio of mentors, including Professor Schwartz, Dr. Irwin Dannis from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and 1995 Lehman graduate Dr. Eliot Melendez, she applied to Harvard Medical School, among others. A graduate of the Harvard program, Dr. Melendez is on the staff of Massachusetts General Hospital. "He told me I should try to get into Harvard," says Ona. "I didn't think that with my background, I would get accepted, but he told me it wasn't about where you're from, but who you are." Although she won acceptances from nine schools, the moment she was accepted to Harvard, she knew that's where she wanted to go.

She hopes to become a primary care physician, specializing in infectious diseases, and ultimately return to Togo to open a community medical center for the poor. "In Togo, there is no insurance, so it's pay-before-service," she says. "If you have no money, you can't get treatment. It's really disheartening to go to a major hospital in Togo and see how many people are desperate for help."

Although she completed her program at Lehman in January, she took a few biology classes at City College this semester—"just to keeping expanding my knowledge," she says—and will graduate with the Class of 2011 on June 2. In fact, she has earned a treasure trove of honors, including summa cum laude ("with highest honors"), departmental honors in her two majors, anthropology and biology; membership in Golden Key Honor Society and Phi Beta Kappa; and both the Hirsh Scholarship and the Kane Prize. She also was president of the Minority Association of Pre-Medical Students.