M2 Sotonye Douglas shares how she never lost sight of her dream to become a doctor. [Show summary]
Sotonye Douglas describes herself as an “imperfect” medical school applicant who nevertheless became a student at Quinnipiac Netter School of Medicine, overcoming tremendous barriers in the process.
An “imperfect” applicant discusses her path to medical school. [Show notes]
There’s a myth out there that med students never fail, never drop a class, and all have high MCATs and GPAs. They’re perfect. Or they don’t get in.
Our guest today is determined and hardworking, but she has also overcome significant challenges on the way to medical school. She doesn’t fit the myth of the perfect med student, but she is nevertheless a proud M2.
Sotonye Douglas is a second year MD student at Quinnipiac Netter School of Medicine. She was born to immigrant parents from Jamaica and Nigeria and grew up in Brooklyn in New York City. From a young age, she wanted to be a doctor, but working her way through high school and college made it hard to get good grades, much less prep for the MCAT. Yet today, she is an M2. Let’s hear her story of hard work, perseverance, and tremendous determination directly from her.
Can you tell us a little bit more about your background outside of medicine? When did you start working? What do you like to do for fun? [1:59]
To go back in time a little bit, I did start working when I was in high school. I was working, but I was also student body president. I was also a cheerleader. I was very, very busy even then. I think that’s when I started learning how to multitask. That’s what kicked it off in high school: me learning how to be professional and how to juggle and how to run from one thing to the next. But for fun, I like to spend time with family and loved ones when I can because I do have a lot of family internationally. I love visiting family and trying to get away and travel. That’s my release.
How did you figure out that you wanted to be a doctor? [2:56]
From a very young age, I found this interest in science. It just seemed so interesting to me. I also speak about having a very deep and robust interest in art. As a kid, when people would ask me, I would say, “Oh, I want to be a doctor.” But as I started to get older and as I got into junior high school, I had this opportunity: There’s this program that is no longer in New York City called the Gifted Program. It was for students who were talented and gifted, basically students that were performing higher on exams and stuff. They had special classes and things worked into our schedule. I had the opportunity to be exposed to a Saturday program for anatomy, and there were models and stuff. They brought different organs. And I had never seen any of that before. I knew what organs were, I knew what a heart was, I knew what a brain was. I knew what these things were, but I had never seen models. I would have been around 11 or 12. And seeing the models, they reminded me of sculptures. The arteries are in red; the veins are in blue. It was seeing the vibrancy and real organs. Since being in anatomy lab, I know that that’s not actually what it looks like, at least in anatomy lab, but just seeing it at that age, it caught my attention because it reminded me of a sculpture.
And I think at that point, I started seeing the connections between art and science, and that anatomy class solidified medicine for me. That’s when I was getting ready to go into high school, and I said, “I need to be in a high school that’s going to help me continue this.” My old guidance counselor and the high school secretary, they remind me every time they see me: “I remember your first day at school, you came in and you said that you wanted to be a doctor.” They remind me all the time now when they see me. It was just something that I felt very strongly. And despite everything that happened, I’ve always remembered having this overwhelming feeling of, “This is what I’m supposed to be doing.” That’s how the early interest was piqued for me.
What were some of the challenges you faced as a child of immigrants growing up in Brooklyn and attending New York City public schools? [5:33]
Some of the challenges were financial because New York City is a very expensive place to live. There were different periods during childhood where things were tighter than they would have normally been, and there were definitely some struggles there. I remember sometimes not always being able to do certain things because money was tight. Eventually, it led to me working early because I wanted to be able to not only help out a little bit at home but to not worry my parents. For example, my high school applications — I paid for that with my McDonald’s salary. That was just one of the financial components that made it harder.
It was also hard being in a neighborhood that was underserved, and having friends and relatives that are suffering from diseases that are preventable, but they don’t have the proper access to care. As a child, I didn’t really understand that. But as I started to get older, I started to see the discrepancies between neighborhoods, especially when you start to travel and you start to see more of the world. There’s a lot of people that I grew up with that don’t have that opportunity to branch out or go away to college, and have those experiences, and see what it looks like in another city. When I started getting those chances, I started realizing that, okay, the way I grew up, it’s not the way everyone else grew up. I definitely saw some of the ways that people were suffering and disadvantaged. I feel like it drove me to this point in life for sure.
You wrote a Forbes article about being an “imperfect medical school applicant.” Nobody’s perfect, but in what ways were you imperfect? [7:24]
In undergraduate, my GPA was not the ideal pre-medical GPA or the GPA that everyone imagines, like a 4.0 or 3.8. That was not my GPA, and I struggled. I struggled a lot with trying to balance working and extracurriculars and still trying to get in community service and trying to build this pre-medical portfolio while trying to maintain my grades. One of the things that made that process, again, more complicated, was the fact that I was also in a new setting and a new area. I had to navigate that and learn how to live in this new city, so that definitely played into that as well.
But my grades were not perfect. I got Cs. I failed a class. Definitely not what you would imagine as the perfect applicant for medical school. That’s where that play on “imperfect” comes from because what people imagine when they hear “pre-medical student,” they’re imagining straight As. They’re imagining hours and hours of community service and hours of medical experience and clinical hours and things of that nature. I was not that person. I definitely struggled with that balance.
How many hours a week were you working during most of college, and were you still finding time for on-campus involvement and some volunteering? [9:08]
Yes, and on average, I want to say around 20 hours. It was very tight. And then I was also a double major in human biology and art, so I would spend hours studying for organic chemistry, and then I’d have paintings that maybe required another five to 10 hours, or I’d have a drawing that would require 14, 15 hours of work. It was definitely hard to balance for sure.
What did you do to overcome the “imperfections”? [9:56]
In undergrad I didn’t have a blueprint, per se. I didn’t know what I was doing. But it was through a lot of research and mentors and talking to people and reaching out to people. Sometimes I literally would say about someone, “Oh, this would be a good person to keep in contact with.” And then I’d follow up with them, and then I’d say, “Hey, can you connect me to this person?” By building connections and building networks, I figured out a pathway to medical school for myself. And it wasn’t easy, and I definitely had a lot of missteps along the way. It took a lot of research and a lot of behind the scenes, saying, “Hey, do you know someone that can help me? Do you know someone that could give me advice?”
That’s how I began to craft this plan, and it wasn’t a perfect plan and it changed over time. Initially, I thought I was going to have one gap year. That then changed to a few gap years and a master’s degree. So it definitely evolved, but at the core of everything, I knew what I wanted, and I knew that I had to continue working towards that goal. I wasn’t easily distracted because I wanted it so bad. I wanted to be in medical school so bad. I wanted to become a doctor so bad. Even when I would have a really rough set of months or a really rough semester, I would always keep that in the back of my mind.
You got a master’s degree from Geisinger’s biomedical science program. How was your experience there? [11:28]
My experience there was a good experience. I know that with the changes this year, I believe the program is currently virtual, but at my time, in-person, it was a good experience. The thing about this particular master’s program is it’s designed to make you not only more competitive for professional school, but to also build on your professional development. I believe that was definitely accomplished within my year there. It was a very quick year and our semesters were packed tight, but I learned a lot and I challenged myself.
I speak about this a little bit in not only the Forbes articles but in some other interviews that I’ve done: I got As for the first time. I wasn’t working other jobs, and that’s what I feel like made the biggest difference; for the first time, I could focus on being a student and I didn’t feel like I was being pulled in so many different directions. I was still active. I was president of two organizations and I also had a student government position. But I knew that with not having that financial responsibility or that financial stress and tension, I could finally focus on working through what I needed to do, fixing my deficiencies in the core sciences, learning how to study, and learning how to review information in a way that would work for me. That still works for me now in medical school.
When you were going through college and doing all this juggling, emotionally how did that feel, dealing with the adversity and the obstacles? [13:12]
At times I felt hopeless, and that’s me being completely honest. At times it felt impossible. I remember having periods of time where I would lean so much on my support system. I would call my friends after every class that was a little rough or speak to that one family member that knew and understood and really leaning on my support system. “Is this going to work? Is this going to happen? Is this ever going to become true?” That feeling can be really defeating at times, but that’s why it’s so important to surround yourself with those reminders that this is possible. You can do this.
For me, what that looks like is, and I speak about this a lot, I would put up post-its around my room of reminders like, “You can do this,” “You got this.” Another thing is I would always remember that I can take it a minute at a time, not even a day at a time. I can take it minute to minute, class to class, exam to exam. And when I got to that point, “Just keep going, just keep going. You got this,” that’s when things started to materialize. I know that feeling of hopelessness, I have been there, and it’s not permanent. I think that’s the key takeaway. It is not a permanent thing.
The second time you applied to medical school, you obviously were in a very different place. Was there anything then that you found difficult about the application process? [15:56]
At that point, I was out maybe a few months from my master’s program. My trajectory went from the master’s program straight into MCAT prep while finishing up classes for the master’s program. And then after that, I turned in the application while I was studying for the MCAT, which is not always advised, but at that point I felt pretty confident in the place that I was in at that time. After that, once my application was done, I started working on secondaries.
The thing that I think was most daunting was just keeping the energy going because after a 10 month intensive master’s and then going straight into MCAT, and then having secondaries, and then having interviews, it seemed like I couldn’t catch my breath. But the one nice thing about that moment is that I noticed the change. The first time I applied, I literally counted down rejections. To a degree, I was expecting them because I knew that I wasn’t as competitive as I could have been. Once I got the first one and the second one, I started realizing, okay, this might not happen. I might need another plan. But in the moment I thought, “Let me just keep the hope, keep hoping, keep hoping.” And when I got to that last rejection, I was like, “Okay, I need plan B.”
I found that plan B very quickly because I was so hungry and I was so determined. The second time around, things were a little bit different. I turned in my secondaries and then my score got released. Then I got additional secondaries based off of, I’m guessing, my score, which was amazing. That feeling of knowing your score got you onto a few more schools’ radars, that’s great. I remember the day that I got that first interview invite, and I didn’t get an interview the first time, so I was just beside myself. I was being emotional. I was happy. I was calling a bunch of people like, “Oh my gosh, I got my first interview!” And I had to travel for it, so I had to arrange a flight and all this stuff, and it was exciting. Even though I was tired at that point and I was a little bit worn out with just the rigor of the last year, when I got to that point where I started getting good news, I was like, “Okay, you are here. Let’s seal the deal. Let’s finish this off.” And that was the difference.
When you got your really good MCAT score, did you add schools to apply to at that point? Did you realize that your chances had improved? [18:48]
Actually, I did not. When you get your score, if you allow your score to be released, there’s certain boxes that you can check while you’re taking your exam to allow your score to be released to schools. It got released to schools and then they started waiving the secondaries for me to apply. So I could have increased the schools, which was amazing because that never happened before, but at the time I was working. I wasn’t really working a job that was as financially fulfilling as it should have been. With the job that I was working, I wouldn’t have been able to afford the flights and everything to go to all of the schools, but it was amazing to get those. It was maybe about 10 schools that had reached out that were willing to waive the secondary, and I was like, “Oh, I wish I could interview everywhere.” In the end, I went to five interviews and got two acceptances outright, and then three wait-list positions.
So now, you’re in medical school. You’re at Quinnipiac. What have you liked best about your medical school experience so far? [20:09]
I think the first two weeks of medical school, I had this unreal feeling that this was actually happening. I would just be sitting in class, and it would hit me like a wave. “You’re a medical student. You’re going to be a doctor.” Or I’d be in class, and they’d say something like, “Yes, with your future patients…” And I’d be like, “Oh my gosh, this is medical school.” It just constantly reminded me that wow, you’re here. This is what you have professed for years that was going to happen, and it’s finally here: it’s happening. So that was the first two weeks. That feeling was just great.
The nice thing about Quinnipiac is, as first and second years, you’re required to do four hours a week of clinical experience. I specifically stated that I wanted to be in an underserved community, and they met that ask, which was amazing. Getting to go into clinic four hours a week and see patients and interact with patients and having patients from similar backgrounds as me, that experience was just unreal because here I am, doing exactly what I said I wanted to do. I wanted to be in an underserved setting. I wanted to have those experiences with people I understood. There would be times where I would understand without them even having to explain what was going on, and I was able to advocate for people. I thought wow, this is happening already. That was a beautiful experience.
Another thing that has been my favorite, which is weird because, in all honesty, initially I was very nervous about it, was anatomy lab. At first, I struggled. I love anatomy; I didn’t struggle with the actual coursework. I struggled with the aspect of death. I never really got to process fully what it would be like to work with a donor. And I think, over time, being in anatomy lab, I warmed up and I got better. And by the time that COVID shut anatomy lab down, I was doing way better, and I was getting the full experience that I feel like the donor would have wanted me to have. That is something that I am so grateful for, and I am so grateful to everyone who donates their bodies to science because being able to learn in that manner, it has helped me so much more. I understand anatomy so much better.
What happened after COVID hit? [23:20]
I was actually on spring break when everything started shutting down, which was really kind of scary because I had classmates that were outside of the country. Then there was this talk of trying to get Americans out of countries, and it was a scramble. It was a really interesting time. I was with family, and I remember all those feelings from March of, “I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know how things are going to go.” I remember checking the numbers every day for New York and trying to make a decision. “Should I go back to Connecticut? Because if my school does continue with in-person, I’m going to be stuck here.” It was lots of little decisions. My brother, he was still in high school at the time, so he was still going in and out of the house every day, and I’m checking to see if he has a fever every time he comes home because the schools are still open in New York City at that point. I remember there being so much confusion. “What do we do?” And then the emails started coming in of the cancellations, and life for everybody went through a complete change. Things were different, and we all had to figure out how to adjust.
I went virtual, and it was so weird because I had a schedule, I had a routine, I was in a rhythm. And then I got knocked off that rhythm completely. I can’t leave my house, I’m ordering groceries to my house, I can’t go to the gym, I can’t see my classmates. We can’t be on campus. So many little changes and tweaks. And we were still learning, and we were still practicing clinical skills. It’s funny now, but in the moment it was very not funny, but we had to practice clinical skills on whatever we could find. I had classmates that were practicing on dolls and stuff just to get the technique down. It was an experience for sure. The nice thing was there was a little bit more time in my schedule because I wasn’t driving to different places. It did give me time to actually mentor and start speaking to different students and stuff that maybe needed help or needed guidance, so that was something that I did have more time on my schedule for. That’s definitely a positive.
Are you back at school now, and how is it? [26:00]
Yes. Now we’re on a hybrid model. We go in one day a week to meet with our standardized patients, our SPs. We meet with the SPs once a week and it’s a one-to-one-to-one: one student, one preceptor, and one SP. I go in for about 30 minutes or so, I practice my clinical skills that I’m supposed to practice that week, and then we rotate out and the next student comes in, and those students leave campus. We are back on campus. We’re allowed to study, of course with precautions and masks and hand sanitizing and being careful. And we’re also back at our clinical sites with full PPE. I have on a shield, I have on two masks, I have an N95. So there’s lots of precautions, but we are back at clinical sites.
How would you like your career to evolve after you finish medical school? Do you have an idea of what specialty you want to go into? [27:29]
I’m currently undecided. I am really excited because in April we start rotations, so I’ll officially be a third year. I really look forward to getting in the wards and being able to roll up my sleeves and get in there and learn. That’s the best feeling right now, looking forward to that. But I hope that I can narrow things down once I get onto the wards, because it’s hard to say now. There are so many things that I find interesting. There are things that I know I don’t see myself doing, but there are so many specialties that make me say, “Oh, this is really nice,” or, “Oh, that’s really cool.” For example, I like the work-life balance of certain specialties like emergency medicine. I liked the excitement and the fact that it’s something new every day. That is exciting. My clinical site is internal medicine, and I do like having that kind of continuity with the patient as well. I find that interesting, and I find those relationships really fulfilling. But then I think about surgery and I’m like, “Oh, that’s really interesting.” And then there’s the anatomy that comes in with that. That would be awesome because there’s so much anatomy. So I’m torn, but I’m hoping to narrow it down once I start third year.
If there was something that you could redo about your path to medicine, what would it be? [29:06]
I would start building a network and mentors sooner. I would have probably started in high school. There were a few people that I knew when I started high school, maybe one or two doctors, but I didn’t really have someone to tell me, “Hey, this is an option for you.” I didn’t learn about postbac and master’s programs until my junior year of college. I didn’t know those were a thing. I didn’t know that they were even an option for people who don’t have strong undergraduate or competitive undergraduate GPAs. Another thing that I didn’t know: I didn’t know that the fee assistance program existed. That’s through the AAMC to pay for application fees and MCAT fees. I didn’t know that that existed. There were so many things that I went out and found, but I found in the moment. If I had had someone that said, hey, do this or do that or don’t do this, even if it wasn’t a mentor that I spoke to every day, maybe we just checked in once a week or once a month, I would’ve gotten to this point sooner. I believe that everything does happen for a reason, and I do believe that your journey is unique to you, and things kind of fall into place when they’re supposed to, but it would have been nicer to get to this point sooner. Maybe I would have saved some money also. I did apply the first time, and I did take the MCAT three times, so if I would’ve saved some money also, that would have been very helpful.
When you talk about mentors, are they physicians? Are they medical students, or students a couple of years ahead of you? [30:44]
Personally, I have more mentors than I do friends. I have mentors with every aspect of my life. If there’s something that someone’s doing that I think is amazing, no matter what the field is, if I think it’s amazing, if it’s something that I can see myself maybe also doing, I’m reaching out to that person. Even if they don’t get back to me, that’s fine because I saw that thing in them that made me say, “Wow, this would be great.” And I took that chance, and if it works out, great. If it doesn’t work out, that’s okay too. But I believe that you can have mentors for anything. I have mentors that are a year ahead of me. I have mentors literally at every step ahead of me in terms of life at Quinnipiac. I have a mentor who’s a third year and a fourth year. I have mentors who are already attendings. I have mentors who are residents. I have every type.
I know it seems like it could be too much information, but I’m very specific about what I ask and what I expect of every mentorship relationship. I go in with a goal, and I know that through this relationship, I’m communicating, “I want to get to this goal. If you’re okay with it, can we get me to this goal together?” And in a mentorship, you can give also. If it’s a research relationship, and you have an intention of publishing this particular research, and there’s an expert in the field and they decide to mentor you, you should also be willing to help them as well. There has to be a give in a mentorship also. I feel like you can never have too many mentors. If there is conflicting information, then it does get a little bit confusing. But most of the time, if you have a set goal, things will fall into place, and you’ll work on achieving that specific goal with that mentor.
Are you mentoring any premeds now? [32:48]
Yes, I have about 31 premed students that I mentor. It’s fulfilling because I am the mentor that I wished that I had. One thing that’s important when you are a mentor is managing expectations and setting a stage for how things will work in the relationship. My mentees know that if I don’t get back to them within 10, 15 minutes of them reaching out, I will get back to them. I won’t just never reach out or never respond. I will get back to them. And they also know that there’s items that they can ask me and I’ll be able to point them in the right direction. That’s something that’s expected and set up from the beginning. I take those relationships very seriously because I remember what it felt like not having information and not having guidance, and I don’t want anyone to feel like that.
Where can listeners find you online to learn more about you? [34:02]
- Sotonye Douglas’s Instagram page
- Sotonye Douglas’s YouTube page
- The Best Timeline for Applying to Medical School
- Accepted Medical School Admissions Services
- A Medical School Admissions Expert’s Guide to Postbacs and Med Schools
- Applying to Med School During COVID-19
- How to Apply to the Best Med Schools for You
- Accepted to Med School in Mid October: How Did He Do It?
- A Physician’s Nontraditional Path from Law Enforcement to Medical School
- Thriving in Medical School, in Business School, and as a Professional Athlete
- Yoga Instructor, Holistic Health Coach, M4: Clare Brady Fits it All In