When Yoseph Boku left his hometown of Addis Ababa and immigrated to Alexandria, Virginia, with his parents and six older siblings, he was only 6 years old, but he knew his job: to learn. “My dad went to school until eighth grade, and my mom didn’t go at all,” he says. “Educational opportunities were limited in the Ethiopian countryside where my parents were raised. Despite not having much formal schooling themselves, my parents brought us to the U.S. so that their children could pursue higher education.”
His parents ended up returning home after less than a year, and his sister, who was 25 at the time, became Boku’s legal guardian. “I was raised by my siblings with the support of the local Ethiopian community and my teachers,” he says. “I felt like I was paying the highest tuition, which was separation from my parents. To ensure that our sacrifice wasn’t in vain, I had to make sure I was learning.”
Though he arrived in this country knowing no English, by third grade he was in the Fairfax County Advanced Academics Program. His hard work over the next decade paid off when he was accepted to Harvard College, where he concentrated in molecular and cellular biology. “My parents didn’t know what Harvard was,” he says. “When I tried to explain it to them, what ended up helping the most was when I told them that’s where Obama went to school. Then they told all their friends.”
He loved the puzzle-like nature of science and came by medicine naturally. Gastroesophageal reflux disease runs in his family and hit one brother particularly hard. “We didn’t have health insurance, so I’d go to the emergency room with him and act as translator,” Boku says. During a high school summer program on human genetics his assignment was to diagnose a hypothetical patient. “I felt so connected to that patient, even though she wasn’t real,” he says. “That’s how I knew this was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
Another summer program, the American Legion Boys State, which teaches students about government, turned Boku on to policy and public service, but after volunteering at a homeless shelter in his first undergrad year and learning about health inequities, he says, “I realized it doesn’t have to be science or social justice—it can be both.”
He sees his role as student council president as presaging a career in advocacy, where he’d work at the intersection of “doing clinical research, seeing patients at the bedside, and advocating for the changes that would make our health care system more equitable,” he says. “I would like to wake up each day with a sense of calling, knowing that my work is alleviating suffering.”
Marium Raza was just 14 when she first realized “what it meant to be a doctor and help someone,” she says. That was the year she was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Though her illness is now well controlled, “it was a very stressful time for me and my family, and not just anyone could talk with us the way my rheumatologist did to help.”
That experience, along with her innate curiosity, led her to major in biochemistry at the University of Washington in her hometown of Seattle. “Being able to understand what was happening to me and why was one way to cope with my disease,” she says. By her junior year of college, the idea of a career in medicine had solidified, thanks to two key occurrences. “From an early age I was aware of the health care inequities between the United States and Pakistan, where my parents grew up,” she says, “but it wasn’t until I volunteered for my school’s street medical team that I saw inequities right here in the U.S.” The second thing that drove this career idea home was her friendship with a student whose parents were undocumented. “I saw the vast difference between her family, who weren’t eligible for the state’s Medicaid system, and mine, where if something happened we could just go to a doctor.”
After she started advocating for people who, for various reasons, are not being well served by the health care system, Raza created Elixir, an app that lists Washington state’s free clinics and community centers. She considered taking the nonprofit that grew out of the app national, but decided she wanted to “learn and explore more.” The app and the nonprofit are now run by another team of students.
Creating Elixir, though, brought her a new goal: to become a physician innovator. “I want to see what I can do on a systemic level,” she says, pointing out that that’s what brought her to “not just any medical school,” but to Harvard. “There are a ton of people here who think like me, and the whole city is so focused on innovation.”
One way she’s gotten involved in that innovation is by running for student council, where she now serves as vice president for advocacy—not just for her fellow students, but for the surrounding community as well. “The experience has only increased my passion for making sure everyone’s concerns are voiced and everyone’s voices are heard,” she says. “I think the role of advocacy is intimately intertwined with the role of physician.”
Elizabeth (Liz) Roux
Nothing focuses the mind like being attacked by a grizzly bear, and Liz Roux has been attacked by several, literally and metaphorically, in her 25 years on the planet.
Born in China, Roux spent her first year in an orphanage after being abandoned for reasons unknown. That metaphorical bear was vanquished by a U.S. woman who adopted Roux at 11 months old. The two made a happy family in Naples, Florida, until, when Roux was 15, her mother was diagnosed with the cancer that would take her life a little more than a year later. Roux says she felt lost after her mother’s death, but she gradually grew closer to her high school running coach and his family, and considered herself “insanely lucky” when they unofficially adopted her. Around the same time, though, Roux’s new younger brother, David, was diagnosed with a cancer that would prove fatal in just over two years. “At the time, I felt like a bad luck charm,” Roux says, but even so, “all the talk about how love and family are the most important things really hit home.”
It took a literal bear attack, though, to bring her fully back to the world of the living. She was leading a hike through the backcountry of Alaska when she got ahead of the group and surprised the animal. “It stood on its hind legs, grunted at me, then slammed down on all fours and charged,” she recalls. She hit the ground, using her backpack as cover. The bear was tearing up the pack when the rest of her group came along and chased it off. “That moment really changed me,” Roux says. “It made me appreciate life so much. I felt awe and humility for nature and a lot of vitality.”
That experience, in part, led her to concentrate in integrative biology at Harvard, with an eye toward becoming a marine biologist. She began looking toward medicine instead after she realized that only about 10 percent of her time would be spent on field work. She chose HMS for two reasons: “the accelerated curriculum is perfect for someone who is yet undecided on a medical specialty,” and her undergrad years showed that her fellow students at Harvard could help create an environment that “pushes me to become a better version of myself.”
Serving as health and wellness chair on the student council is in keeping with Roux’s habit of finding “chosen family” and creating community wherever she goes. She’s interested in surgery and wilderness emergency medicine and imagines a future where she can practice in the mountain west, such as Utah or Colorado, while helping to run a community garden, volunteering at the local food pantry, and perhaps coaching the high school running or soccer team. “I always find things to be grateful for,” she says. “Life is not perfect and it’s not easy, but it is good.”
Elizabeth Gehrman is a Boston-based writer.
Images: John Soares