– Joseph Owuor –
The journey to where I am in life right now has been filled with twists and turns. I have met many amazing people along the way who have shaped who I am and helped direct my passion for science. My journey begins in Kenya.
I was five years old, and I can still remember my dad telling me that I was going on a plane. I had only heard and saw planes. I never imagined getting on one. Where was I going? I had no idea; all I was told was that my other siblings were waiting for me on the other side. Little did I know then that boarding that flight would change my whole life forever. The destination of my flight was Boston, Massachusetts.
My Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion, and Tin Man
Like Dorothy from “Wizard of OZ,” I also had my mentors who helped me get to where I am today. I had my Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion, and Tin Man; however, they didn’t have the same characteristics as the characters in “Wizard of OZ” nor did they look like them.
Fast forward to second grade. By this time, I was well adjusted to the school system. I was quite the social butterfly and I quickly made friends in my new city. Second grade was where I crossed path with my first mentor (aside from my parents); Ms. H. Ms. H was my second grade teacher. Everyday before class began, she used to point at a sign in the front of the room and had the whole classroom read it aloud. The sign read “Do Your Best.”
You never know until you try.
“Do your Best,” was her favorite phrase. She always encouraged us to do our best in everything that we did. I mean everything. From lining up in a straight line to making sure we were reading our books on a weekly basis so we could get a free kid’s pizza coupon to Pizza Hut. She never failed her students neither did she ever want any of her students to fail.
She saw the full potential in all of us at a young age, and emphasized to all of us to do our best in anything that we aspired to achieve. The phrase “Do your best” has stuck with me since the second grade and has been a valuable tool that I have used in my journey.
Along the way, I also met another mentor in the fourth grade, Mr. S. He was a man known for his dope guitar skills and a man who cared deeply about his students. He was my fourth grade teacher and also my first science teacher that introduced me to the world of STEM. I can still remember my friend and I staying after school with Mr. S, not because we were in trouble, but because we were popping balloons.
He challenged my friend and I to build a system using levers, pulleys, wheel and axels, and wedges to pop balloons. I remember being so intrigued and excited by all the components of the system, and I immediately fell in love with science and technology at a young age. Mr. S invested in his students. He was willing to sacrifice more time than he was expected to as a teacher to inspire and challenge the creative minds of his students. The small mustard seed that Mr. S invested in me has allowed me to blossom into the person I am today.
Middle school was fun, and then came high school.
At the end of my eight grade year, Mr. W – my would be class master in high school – gave us a speech on how, “these next four years of your life are going to fly by.” He was 100% right. They did fly! Throughout the wild terrain of high school filled with many obstacles, Mr. W. became a very close mentor to me. He was my tour guide. He guided me trough the rough terrains and helped me foster my leadership capabilities. In my sophomore year of high school Mr. W recommended that I join a two year allied health internship offered by my high school. At the time I had promised myself that I would never join or take any classes pertaining to health sciences. My household was heavily influenced by health professionals growing up, and I had convinced myself I would never be interested in anything health related out of pure rebellion. Mr. W always challenged students to step out of their comfort zone. “You never know until you try,” that was his favorite line.
I took a leap of faith and joined the allied health internship my sophomore year and by senior year I was rotating and shadowing different health professionals at a local hospital. During my two years in the internship Mr. W served as my mentor and encouraged me to be resilient and patient as I was going through the internship and it paid off. By senior year the experience had solidified my interest in medicine. What started as a rebellion to medicine transformed into a passion I strongly cared and desired to pursue with Mr. W’s encouraging words, “You never know until you try”.
I learned to step out of my comfort zone from Mr. W. This allowed me to take ownership and vital roles within the high school and my community, which strengthened my leadership capabilities that Mr. W saw in me. He saw the potential in me and he equipped me with tools found in every good leader. Teamwork, humility, communication, mediator, fair, and understanding, these are some of the tools he gave me.
Fast forward to junior year of college.
I visited Kenya for the first time in 16 years and I had the opportunity to visit many family members I had not seen since I left Kenya when I was a little five-year-old boy. Revisiting Kenya revealed to me how far my family had come and the sacrifices and investments my parents had made to ensure where I was in life. Being back in Kenya also taught me that there is no place like home and reminded me of my humble beginnings. It was then that I committed to returning and working in Kenya to empower and help communities.
I deferred graduation from undergrad – which ultimately put my eventual plans to apply to med school on hold – so that I could volunteer as program coordinator for a Boston based NGO in 2017. Based at Community Hospital, just an hour and a half away from my ancestral home, I quickly built strong relationships within the community, and became invested in programs implemented by the local hospital and the NGO to 1) strengthen the health system in Western Kenya and develop, implement, and scale health innovations and 2) facilitate healthcare delivery, research, education, and capacity building for vulnerable populations.
I took the skills and values my mentors had instilled on me at a young age and brought them back home to help my community in Kenya. They proved to be fruitful and brought the community I worked with at the hospital success, and impacted the quality of care for patients. One of the hallmark programs I directed at the hospital was an emergency response comprised of health care professionals who were able to provide care to acutely ill patients brought into the emergency department. I was lucky enough to build this program from the ground up with an emergency physician for the NGO and a team of local Kenyan doctors.
This program taught me that the success of a leader depends on their ability to empower others, listen, form strong relationships, and foster other people’s growth. I quickly learned that the response team was only successful if the providers trusted their team’s skills and their ability as individual health professionals. Through this empowerment, we were able to create a sustainable program in which the Kenya-based physicians could lead successful emergency responses on their own. Today our Kenya teams have completed almost 90 emergency response cases since the inception of the program.
The same line Ms. H used to tell us in second grade encouraged people around me and produced positive results. Like Mr. S, I invested a small mustard seed on the community I worked with and the outcome was bountiful. Like the words of Mr. W time flew, I constantly strived to push my boundaries to new limits, and along the way I established strong relationships with members of the community and hospital that guided me through Kenya. They shared their experiences with me and mentored me on what I had missed in Kenya for the past 17 years while I was in the States.
Like the Scarecrow in the “Wizard of Oz”, I’ve gained knowledge in science and health innovations while in Kenya. Like the Lion, I’ve gained confidence and courage in the work that I have done, and I’ve pushed myself out of comfort zone as a college student to revisit and connect with my Kenyan roots. The work I’ve been involved in while in Kenya has solidified my passion for helping others with unconditional love like the Tin Man and empowering people I care about the most.
In Kenya, I’ve witnessed the positive impact community members and workers have on their communities when they are well trained, empowered, and well equipped with resources. I witnessed progress and growth arises most often when I fostered strong relationships, and everyone was treated with dignity and inclusively. I am humbled to have had the wonderful opportunity to go back home and have a positive impact in my community through health innovations. As I continue on my journey and the road ahead, I am dedicated to continuing to live by example as I continue to serve my community, home and abroad, and aspire to become a physician.