Medical School, Minus the Debt

Grand Rounds

By Emily Gaines Buchler

Portrait of a young Black woman wearing a white student doctor coat, circular glasses, and a red-patterned head scarf over her light orange-brown locs.The first in her family to work as a medical doctor, Dr. Chimsom Orakwue, pictured above, matched as a resident in internal medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

As a child, Dr. Chimsom Orakwue (M.D. ’23) watched her father, a computer engineer, suffer a debilitating back injury that left him unable to work. Her family, having immigrated years earlier from Nigeria to California, couldn’t pay for the health care he needed, so her mother enrolled in nursing school, while an 8-year-old Chimsom pitched in to care for her younger siblings.

Today, Dr. Orakwue, who as of July will be a resident in internal medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, is the first in her family to work as a medical doctor, thanks, in part, to Weill Cornell Medicine’s debt-reduction program.

“This program made it possible,” Dr. Orakwue says about the scholarship program created to eliminate debt for students who qualify, freeing them up to take full advantage of medical school while pursuing a path in medicine based on their interests. Established in 2019, and funded entirely through philanthropy, the program covers tuition, fees, housing and living expenses.

With the median cost of attending four years of a private medical school amounting to $330,180, training to be a physician comes with a hefty price tag that deters many students from applying. “Data from the Association of American Medical Colleges shows that the majority of students entering medical school hail from the top two quintiles of family income in the United States,” says Dr. Jessica Peña (M.D. ’03), the assistant dean for admissions and an associate professor of clinical medicine and medicine in clinical radiology at Weill Cornell Medicine. “Achieving excellence in patient care, education and research requires a diverse physician workforce, which is threatened by rising costs.”

Although Dr. Peña received scholarship money to cover some of her tuition, she still had to take out loans to enroll as a student 20 years ago at Weill Cornell Medicine — a reality that the debt initiative would have altered.

For Dr. Orakwue, the program made all the difference, enabling her to co-found a student-run initiative for Spanish-speaking patients and to serve as president of both the Student National Medical Association and the Students for Equal Opportunity in Medicine. “It lifted such a huge weight off of my life, giving me the freedom to focus on my craft, carve my own path and, really, just breathe,” she says.

Dr. Nicholas Vernice (M.D. ’23), who received support from the debt initiative and will start a residency in July in plastic surgery at NYU Langone Health, agrees. “The program alleviated a huge financial burden, allowing me to dedicate myself to research for a full year and to complete four off-site rotations,” Dr. Vernice says. “It let me be the best version of myself I could be.”

Photo: John Abbott

Summer 2023 Front to Back

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