Sean Paul Schlosser
When I was 17 I knew I wanted to be a doctor. I knew it in the way that teenagers know anything about themselves, with every fiber of my being and without the ability to articulate it for anyone else to understand. But my ambitions were compelling enough that I was able to beg my parents to send me to one of those expensive “doctor camps” for precocious children of means. They paid for it with money that they took out of their retirement account and I went. Less than a year later I matriculated to Penn State, and less than a month after that I nearly dropped out. I was failing all of the science courses that I had signed up for as a pre-med student and letters had been sent home to inform my parents that my grades would render me ineligible for my scholarships. I was humiliated and ashamed. As much as I had known that I wanted to go to medical school a year earlier, I knew then that I never could. I was not academically prepared for the rigor of those classes at 18. I gave up on being a doctor; it seemed that I just wasn’t smart enough. If it weren’t for my mother, I might have given up on college altogether, but she convinced me to give myself another chance, to take different courses and to have faith that I could do better than I had. I took courses on history, government and Arabic and found that I could indeed be successful in college. But I could never go to medical school.
After college I joined Teach for America in the Mississippi Delta where I taught high school social studies in Helena, Arkansas. Learning how to teach on the job was the hardest thing I have ever done. Every day that I struggled to manage behavior in my classroom or finish my lesson on time was a day that I failed my students and myself. Slowly, very slowly, I got better. My classroom became one where students learned that they could be academically successful, a place to feel good about school and themselves. On my better days at least.
After I left the Delta, one of my previous colleagues convinced me to move to China where I worked training and leading a team of teachers with Teach for China in rural Yunnan on the Burmese border. Managing teachers came easier to me than teaching ever did. I was good at my job and my team liked me. I taught myself Mandarin and pidgined it with enough of the local dialect to get by, have meetings with local officials and even host a conference with the county education bureau. I liked my job, but I knew that it wasn’t a career that was sustainable for me. It was exciting and I enjoyed helping people in a way that felt meaningful but I couldn’t see myself building a life in a place where I was such an outsider.
It was at about this time that my first corps of teachers needed recommendation letters for jobs and graduate schools. One was applying to a post-baccalaureate pre-medical program, for people who decided to go to medical school later in life but still needed to complete the required science coursework. As I was writing her recommendation letter, I couldn’t help but think of myself and what I had wanted for my life a decade earlier. And why not? I had been successful on two different continents and in two different languages. I had proven that I was smart. I enjoyed helping people, and was adept at puzzling solutions from ambiguous situations. Why shouldn’t I give myself another chance?
I spent the next few months drafting applications and applying to these post-bac programs that gave people another chance to go to medical school. But not people like me, apparently. What had taken me months to draft took admissions departments days to reject. I was heartbroken. It seemed that these programs had reached the same conclusion that I had when I first started college: medical school was not for me. But eventually I began to wonder if it weren’t something different. Maybe instead of an intrinsic personal flaw, more superficial requirements were lacking; boxes that hadn’t been checked. I needed to know.
I finished the school year with Teach for China before quitting my job, moving back home to Philadelphia, and enrolling in community college. I took a college physics course to prove I could measure up academically and an EMT training course to see if I actually liked medicine. I subsequently worked as an EMT after obtaining my license and availed myself of the opportunity to help people when they needed it most. Meanwhile, I applied to the same post-bac programs that had rejected me the year before. Once again, shortly after submitting my applications, these same programs sent me back rejections. Except for one. Bryn Mawr College put me on their waitlist. And after a couple of months, they took me off of their waitlist. I had been accepted into one of the more reputable post-bac programs and what had seemed impossible for the last ten years was suddenly plausible, maybe even likely. With good grades and hard work, I would get to go to medical school.
My year at Bryn Mawr was very different from my time in college. The professors were more supportive and invested in my learning. I was also a very different person than I had been at 18. I knew that failures, however painful, weren’t permanent. I knew just how far I could push myself. And I knew that I could succeed. There or maybe even anywhere else. Later, when I was looking at medical schools, I knew I wanted one where faculty really cared about students, where they enjoyed teaching and where the experiences of someone as eclectic as myself would be considered an asset. I found that at Rochester.
I am just starting my second year and, because of all of the support and effort of the faculty and my classmates, medical school is manageable. I’m doing what I dreamed of as a teenager, what I felt was impossible as a young adult. But I’m not doing it alone, and it’s the people here that make it possible.
Medical school has consistently challenged and inspired me to become my best self. Coming to Rochester, I knew that I would be trained to become a highly skilled and caring physician, but the program strays far from a cookie-cutter approach. Here, students’ diverse interests and experiences are valued, and we are equipped and enabled to pursue the particular paths that each one of us finds most meaningful. This is evidenced in the diversity of each incoming class, the wide range of humanities courses and elective pathways offered each year, and the variety of residency programs students choose to go to after graduation. But for me, my most defining work has happened outside of the classroom and clinic, and I can personally attest to Rochester’s support and mentorship throughout this process.
The summer after my first year of medical school, I had the opportunity to go to Vanuatu, a small island nation in the South Pacific. Vanuatu holds a special place in my heart, as I had spent several months serving there with a medical missions organization before I started med school. While my first time in Vanuatu was eye-opening and perspective-shaping, I remember feeling frustrated at my relative inability to help. After I left, I knew I wanted to come back with more skills and knowledge to better aid the people I felt deeply connected to but unable to adequately serve. I assumed that day would be many years away. Yet with the guidance of faculty mentors and the global health pathway at Rochester, I was able to turn my hope of giving back into a tangible, fully funded research project.
I found it incredibly meaningful to go back to Vanuatu. While our research project provided important community health data to a local medical clinic, the most special moments for me were ones of personal connection. I held a woman’s hand as she cried detailing the horrifying partner violence she experienced at home, I laughed with an older gentleman as we stumbled our way through funny physiotherapy stretches that would help relieve his back pain, and I celebrated with multiple generations of a family as a young boy’s disfiguring and long-lasting abscess began to heal with proper wound care. I found myself greatly affected by countless moments like these and the relationships that stemmed from them. And I realized firsthand just how much of a privilege it will be as a doctor to share in people’s most vulnerable moments and to participate in their healing process.
Going back to Vanuatu allowed me to reconnect with the people I cared deeply about and propelled me toward my future goals of serving under-resourced populations abroad as a physician. Without the support and guidance of the school, my time there would not nearly have been as personally significant or, more importantly, as beneficial to the community in which I served. It probably would not have even been possible. That summer was an incredible conclusion to a remarkable academic year of growth and discovery, and it is one of many ways that Rochester helps each of its students chart their own paths to become the best doctor they can be.
At the age of seven, I watched as my mother fought for her life in the intensive care unit due to a complicated pregnancy. Unable to fully grasp the magnitude of the situation at the time, my fear was matched with curiosity. During those seven days, I continually asked what was wrong with my mom, what the doctors were doing, and how I could make her better. Those long seven days my mother spent in the ICU and the eventual passing of my long awaited little sister truly sparked something in me. Not only did it give me a newfound respect for the life-saving work of physicians, it made me more inquisitive as to what causes certain conditions and what can be done to effectively treat – if not cure – ailments.
My interest in medicine only continued to increase as the years passed. As the child of West African immigrants, my desire to serve was fueled each time I received news of loved ones abroad who suffered or passed away due to inadequate healthcare, especially in post-civil war Sierra Leone. In addition, my own childhood experiences as a patient of multiple surgeries further intensified my desire to understand how the human body functions.
Upon entering college, I had spent a decade affirming that I would one day become a physician. However I acknowledged the fact that I had other interests, with my fasciation with social sciences being comparable to my love of biology. I found enjoyment in studying societal dynamics and how they influence individuals’ interactions, behavior, and perceptions, and I even began to consider careers in clinical psychology and counseling. After immersing myself in a wide variety of course work, extracurricular activities, and work experiences, I ultimately realized that becoming a physician was the sole career that encompassed all of my professional and personal interests of providing hands-on medical care as well as counsel and guidance to those in need of assistance.
As such, when searching for a medical school, I sought to be a part of an institution that shared my same passion and goals. Fortunately, my search led me to the University of Rochester School of Medicine & Dentistry, which perfectly aligned with my mission to integrate my understandings of biological sciences and societal dynamics. As a former Psychology major, its unique biopsychosocial model affords me the opportunity to continue to study the interplay between the mind and body, as well as the cultural and socioeconomic factors that must be considered in order to provide effective medical care.
Throughout my time at the university, I have grown immensely as a medical professional and an individual. Although my medical journey is not yet complete, I am excited and confident that my UR education and training will enable me to accomplish great things in the future.