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How a Daughter of Immigrants and First-Gen College Student Entered DO School

Kelly Bang, Des Moines University College of Osteopathic Medicine, class of 2024, a daughter of immigrants and first-generation college student, talks about what pushed her to come back to school and pursue medicine.

Can you share some of your unique experiences getting to and through D.O. school?

As a first-generation Asian American, I was both nervous and excited to begin my new life as a college student during my first year at University of California Irvine. Both of my parents immigrated to the United States as refugees during the Vietnam War and I was proud to be the first generation to attend college. However, I needed to work two jobs to help pay for school, and I struggled to balance my time at work and studying. 

Adjusting to college life was challenging for me. I was also lost and clueless about what I wanted to do in life and had no postgrad goals. Hence, I had difficulty navigating through academia and didn’t know who to turn to for guidance. I failed multiple courses that first quarter and was immediately placed on academic probation. 

Despite my efforts, I continued to struggle and was academically dismissed from the university in the middle of my second year. Feeling ashamed, I kept my failure away from family and friends, and took time off school to explore my passions and life purpose. During this period, my dad was having health problems, and the fear of losing him was what triggered my interest in medicine. 

Because my parents are immigrants, I commonly accompanied my dad to his medical visits to interpret. I remember feeling hopeless, seeing my dad weak and sick, and I also felt frustrated not knowing how to help him. I wanted to do more. 

I then began volunteering at hospitals and clinics to explore medicine, and each experience further solidified my interest. However, I knew that simply wanting to become a doctor was not enough. I clearly didn’t have the grades for medical school and needed to get back into UC Irvine first. I needed to make changes in my life and prove to my university that I had what it takes. 

With my newfound determination, I retook classes at a local community college, raised my GPA enough to re-enter UC Irvine, and graduated with a Bachelor’s in social ecology and minor in psychology and social behavior. My premedical journey officially started after I graduated, and I was overwhelmed by the requirements for medical school. I knew my GPA wasn’t competitive enough, and I still had prerequisite courses to complete because I was a nonscience major at UC Irvine. 

I didn’t want to make the same mistake I made in college by navigating this unfamiliar path by myself. I later applied to a post-baccalaureate program at California State University specifically designed for nontraditional premedical students and career changers. 

This program connected me to the people I needed to get into medical school — a pre-med adviser and mentors, both of whom I credit for my successes. Because of them, I received the guidance and support I needed to navigate my pre-med journey and get to where I am today.

What was a hardship you overcame throughout your D.O. school experience?

Being a daughter of immigrants and a first-generation college graduate both bring distinctive challenges. Additionally, growing up in a low-socioeconomic community and being the first in my family to pursue a postgraduate degree and medical career led to more barriers. 

These obstacles help shape my identity, and I know I can relate and advocate for many students from similar backgrounds. Additionally, my success in getting into medical school after getting dismissed from an undergraduate university makes my story unique. 

I believe the young generation of future physicians are made to believe we need to fit a particular mold with certain statistics to become a physician, and I want to use my story to empower students to believe that isn’t always the case. I hope to share my testimony to inspire future colleagues to believe they have what it takes, to not be discouraged by failures and naysayers, and I want to encourage them to see their struggles as opportunities to mature and develop the skills necessary to become compassionate, successful physicians.

The rigorous course load in D.O. school is undoubtedly difficult, and my ability balancing school and personal life has consistently been a challenge. A hardship that I am currently in the process of overcoming is losing my dad seven months ago due to COVID-19 complications. My dad was my best friend and the driving force behind my decision to become a doctor. It was devastating to lose him just three weeks before the start of a new academic year as a medical student. Fortunately, with medical school being mostly online due to the pandemic, I was able to be excused from in-person labs during the first couple weeks of the semester to spend more time with my family in California. 

When it was time to leave home and head back to Des Moines University (DMU) in Iowa, I felt a sense of déjà vu. Once again, I was starting my new life, away from my family, as a first-year student at a university. However, I learned from my mistakes and understood the importance of being vulnerable and seeking help. I knew I couldn’t navigate through my grief and medical school alone, I vowed to prioritize my mental health. 

Fortunately, DMU is incredibly supportive of mental health and provides ample resources to us students. I have been able to speak with a therapist at DMU every two weeks since my dad’s passing, which has helped me cope tremendously. Some days are harder than others, but it is reassuring to know I have support and am not alone. DMU’s Student Counseling Center has helped me to stay focused, motivated, and to not lose sight of what brought me here in the first place — my dad.

In an attempt to channel my intense emotions into something positive, this year I established a Virtual Mentorship Program at DMU. The leader position I hold in one of our campus organizations (Special Events Chair in American Medical Student Association) gave me a chance to turn my passion for mentorship into reality. 

Our mentorship program collaborates with two undergraduate universities in Iowa. Our objective is to pair their pre-medical students with a current DMU medical student to provide one-on-one mentorship, support, and guidance. It is 100 percent online so we can connect to a greater number of students without putting anyone at risk of contracting COVID-19. I continue to give credit to my mentors for helping me get where I am today, and I want to continue the gift of empowerment by mentoring the next generation of physicians.

Although it is difficult, I try to view my struggles in a positive light. Losing my dad during unprecedented times was by far the most difficult thing I’ve experienced, but I now know what grief is like and can better empathize with my peers, colleagues, and future patients who are dealing with death. In addition, being in medical school during a pandemic has allowed me to self-reflect upon my personal journey and discover my passion for mentorship. 

Being a mentor and empowering future providers has been incredibly fulfilling, and it keeps me going on days when my motivation and mental health are challenged. Despite how difficult it has been balancing my home and work life, I know I will never give up on my dreams of becoming a doctor. I initially got here because of my dad and I will finish strong because of him, my mentors and mentees, and my future patients.

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