It was my first day of undergrad and the feeling of pride and excitement were overwhelming. I was thrilled, I was going to be the first in my family to earn a college degree.

I checked my email several times a day, and being that it was the first day of college, I figured I’d see greetings from professors, syllabi, maybe even a few good luck emails from high school teachers.

Instead, I got an email from my program director welcoming us to the next five years of our life. Confusion slowly settled in because the program I was placed into was for low-income first-generation college students. It’s designed to make our massive university feel a little smaller and more like home. Other than that one distinction, we were normal college students about to embark on the traditional four year track.

The range of emotions

Confusion quickly morphed into panic – did I just sign all these first year documents, go through multiple health exams, and an excruciating FAFSA just to be placed into a program that won’t let me graduate on time? I immediately responded back to our director asking him if there was a mistake. He explained to me that several students in this program take five years to accomplish what everyone else at the University of Maryland seem to do in four.

Panic now turned to anger. This was the first expectation that was placed on me and my journey through medicine. It was shattering to know that checking “yes” on the box asking if I was a first-generation college student would cause people to place me into a box, to confine and restrict me to their expectation of failure. I’m not ashamed of my heritage or my story. I’m proud of being the first in my family to earn my degree and proud of how far we collectively had to come to get me to where I am today. But an economic disadvantage does not equate an educational disability. While many of my peers did take longer than 8 semesters, the expectation that all students in that program, including myself, would never rise to the occasion is what was so shattering.

Anger shifted into motivation. I felt an overwhelming sense of determination as I realized that I had the power to prove myself to the director, and to anyone else that would question my ability in the classroom or elsewhere.

That email was simultaneously one of the worst and best messages I have ever received. I forged a deep and motivating pride out of the embers of my rage. I was truly proud.  Proud of all that I had already achieved, despite those who thought I didn’t fit their vision of success. Proud because I wouldn’t let the expectations others had of me affect how I valued my own intelligence and work ethic. Proud because I learned how to tell my widowed mother that I had to prioritize my studies on nights where family obligations demanded my attendance. That one had to be the hardest expectation to buck; that to be the face of the family and represent my late father at significant events would have to come second this time and more times to come. Proud because the expectations of failure that my peers, colleagues, and supervisors would place on me always came second to my own.

Letting go of other people’s opinions

That day, I understood very clearly that no one’s opinion of what a student of color, (no less a woman), could do in the medical field would matter as long as I understood what my expectations of myself were – to be the best physician I can be. That’s all any doctor can ever ask for at the end of the day. I strive to be a physician who understands the intersectionalities of physical health and social life. A physician that would listen, when others disregard.

My journey through undergrad came with its fair share of trials and tribulations, but I wouldn’t trade them for anything in world. Each obstacle prepared me for bigger obstacles to come. They taught me to write my own story, to let my own voice be the loudest one in my head. That voice has a simple message: “Hannah, you may not have always been dealt perfect cards but you’re resourceful, creative, and caring. That combined with your drive and motivation can take you much further than you may imagine. It won’t be easy in medicine and you’ll have a lot of doubters to prove. But you’ve already done this before because in May of 2018 you graduated with a degree that no one said that you could earn, and you did it in four years. And you’re going to do it again because you’re meant to be a doctor. I expect it.”

Hannah Terefe is a 1st-year medical student based out of Washington, D.C. She enjoys cooking paleo-friendly meals, fitness, and travel. You can follow her at the_habesha_doc on Instagram.

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