“The age range of our incoming medical students is 18 to 35”. Sitting in the plastic chairs at my white-coat ceremony, I felt murmurs of shock ripple through the crowd of newly-minted medical students and their families after the Associate Dean of Admission spoke. Later, once we recited our Hippocratic Oath and ceremonially received our white coats, I recall my classmates asking each other and me if anyone knew who our youngest classmate was. With casual ease born from years of experience, I responded that I wasn’t sure.
I can count on two hands the number of people outside my family who know how old I truly am: I am now 19, and was born in 2001. Besides using make-up to add a couple of years onto my appearance, I have always considered myself blessed to have looked older than I am — it is easy for people to infer that I am their peer in age. Rarely have I told anyone my age and the story behind it.
When people ask me why I accelerated my learning so much, I answer that I love to learn. It’s partially true: growing up, I fancied myself becoming a gardener or marine biologist, aspirations derived from my early fascination with watching my plants and pet fish grow. However, the more prominent reason for my acceleration lies within my family and the obstacles we faced.
“No, it's fine, I promise.” This was one of the most familiar phrases that I heard from my seven siblings throughout my childhood. A lingering cough or a bout of vomiting often accompanied these words, a consequence of our family’s inability to afford insurance. Symptoms that would have required medical attention in any other case, were downplayed.
As the oldest child in a household of ten, I was always aware of the strain on my family’s financial resources and the burden placed on my father, our sole provider. I saw my mother worry day and night when my father was laid off. The first time, at the age of 8, I cried with her and promised her I would stay in America to take care of my siblings if she and my father had to leave. She and I both knew this was a blind promise; I was still in elementary school and had years to go before I could support myself independently, let alone my large family. Thinking back to that promise always brings tears to my eyes, because it represents the fear my parents swallow daily and the sacrifices my parents have made for us, continuously and unconditionally. As I made these promises again the next year, and the year after that, I strengthened my resolve that someday, my mother would not have to worry; someday, I could and would be strong enough to support my family.
I found my answer lay at my fingertips, nestled in the pages of my textbooks. If I, the eldest, could accelerate my path, go to college earlier, pursue a career sooner, I would be able to support my younger siblings if my parents were forced to leave us. From then on, I diligently pushed myself with only one goal: to learn ahead, to go to college earlier, to find my dream career and start it sooner. Through high school and college, my personal experiences with financial barriers to healthcare drew me to advocate for low-income and underserved patients at a free clinic. My cherished experiences as a caregiver for my younger siblings drew me to medicine, where I could provide care to those who needed it most and couldn’t access it otherwise.
Fast forward, a year ago, my white-coat ceremony was a bittersweet moment, tinged both with nostalgia for the past and hope that I could reach the milestones ahead. I had achieved my goal, I had found my dream career and I was on the path to becoming the physician that my siblings had never been able to see in our childhood. I was 18, and three years closer to being able to support and care for my family.
21 will mean something different to me when I reach that milestone. Rather than celebrating in a bar, I will be helping my parents fill out their green card application. I will finally be old enough to list myself as their sponsor, to repay their support and create the difference I have always wanted in their lives. I will finally be in a position where I can help secure the future that my parents dreamed of for my siblings, the future that they moved countries, suffered racist taunts, and sacrificed their energy and youth for. I still remember an eight-year-old girl, terrified of her parents leaving her. I know she would be proud to see me now, a strong woman who is no longer afraid, but prepared to become a leader in fiercely protecting my family and future patients.
21 represents a hope born of countless sleepless nights, staying up late to study or working three jobs to help contribute to our family income. 21 is a lullaby and promise that I whispered to my younger brother, as I watched him toss and turn with a stomach pain we could not afford a doctor’s visit for. 21 is a dream that is literally bigger than my life—because it will offer my parents a chance at a new life, one where they are not forced to live in fear of police or hospitals. 21 serves as a reminder that I have achieved my goals. When that day comes, I will smile, because I know 21 will not be a capstone, but a catapult. I cannot wait to see where it takes me.