January 26, 2018 7:00 AM

From a Freshman Year ‘F’ to a Third-Year Med Student

One student’s story — as the first in his family to attend college — highlights the importance of retaining motivated students of color interested in medicine.

It was the fall of 2010. My first semester at the University of Michigan. I was pre-med and beyond determined to achieve a fruitful career as a physician. My first undergraduate exam ever was none other than introductory chemistry, one of many so-called “weeder classes” on the journey to medical school.

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I studied day and night, night and day, in nervous preparation for the anguish of college-level science exams — compounded because your grade is determined only by your performance on a few tests.

I was confident. But a week or so later the scores came out. 45 percent.

Yes, you read correctly, 45 percent.

More than seven years later, I’ve taken countless exams and that’s the only score I vividly remember. Failure didn’t even begin to describe how I felt about my performance. I felt incompetent.

We all have mishaps and I’ve scored poorly on past tests, but I never failed anything that badly, especially something that I put considerable time and effort into. I was distraught — not necessarily at the score itself, but what it might imply. It was as if that exam was the fork in the road, and the score was supposed to be a sign for me to take the path away from medicine and toward a plan B that I didn’t have.

I questioned my ability to endure the “pre-med life,” and thus my potential at achieving my lifelong goal of becoming a doctor. If I couldn’t get through introductory chemistry, how on earth could I make it through the rest of the science classes?

Something such as failing one general chemistry exam seems so minuscule, doesn’t it? It was just one exam. I was probably overreacting, right? Wrong. A story such as mine is not uncommon.

"Retaining motivated students of color interested in medicine who find themselves in doubtful positions such as I was is imperative. It’s one of the most important ways to increase diversity within the field of medicine."
Fitz Tavernier Jr.

Failure as ‘frequent and inevitable’

Attrition rates for STEM students are high across the board, regardless of race or ethnicity. The journey to medicine is a long, grueling process, and that’s the truth.

There will be students who do not make it. It takes passion and endurance beyond measure. There is this stigma among undergraduate pre-meds that you have to be perfect academically from the moment you leave your mother’s womb.

But while the medical field, from students to physicians, comprises some brilliant individuals with remarkable intellect, that doesn’t exempt us from failure, especially academic failure. Medicine as we know it would cease to exist if our predecessors did not fail.

Pre-med students get discouraged early on from general pre-med classes and from their academic failures. This is nothing new. All it takes is one failure, especially at the start of your first year, to feel incompetent. There is this false reality regarding individuals who successfully make it in medicine, especially within minority communities. Students such as myself who have successfully endured the journey of making it into medical school can have their fair share of failures.

SEE ALSO: Doctors Who Specialize in Not Specializing: Key to Medicine’s Future

But it’s only a failure/mistake if you didn’t learn or obtain anything from the experience.

Failure does not equate to inadequacy. This is something we need to ingrain in every pre-med student’s head.

I try to refrain from using the words mistake or failure because in reality if you took the time to reflect on it afterward, and then took the necessary measures to change the outcome for future events, mistakes turn into learning opportunities.

Fellow M3s Kristian Black (left) and Rose Bamfo (middle) alongside Fitz Tavernier Jr.

Changing my trajectory

I looked at that 45 percent and admittedly came very close to abandoning my dream. I kid you not, I specifically remember calling my mother afterward and telling her that her son, the first in his immediate family to go to college, may not be cut out to be a doctor.

That hurt.

But with time, I thankfully got motivated and did everything I could to change my trajectory. To prepare for the next exam, I sought out free tutoring services on campus; I spent countless hours in my professor’s office; I joined study groups, stayed in on weekends and also reached out to upperclassmen who conquered the course prior to me. That 45 percent of subjective failure on my first exam turned into a 94 percent glimmer of hope on my second.

I’m no genius, but rather just zealous, motivated and strong-willed. Here I am now, blessed to have the opportunity to represent one of the top-10 medical schools in the nation with my dreams closer in sight.

Moving forward, retaining motivated students of color interested in medicine who find themselves in doubtful positions such as I was is imperative. It’s one of the most important ways to increase diversity within the field of medicine.

This article was originally published on Dose of Reality, the blog of the University of Michigan Medical School.