I grew up in Dakar in Senegal, and after I finished what would be middle school, I fell ill with malaria and gastric ulcers. This was my first encounter with the health system in Senegal. I was very disappointed. Hospitals and clinics had very limited resources to care for their patients. It was an eye-opener for me.
That’s when I became interested in medicine. When you find yourself in a situation where the medical system is not as sophisticated as what you have here in the United States, every single doctor becomes a role model, because you know that these are people who are not wealthy. You know that they are doing it for the love of what they do.
I graduated from high school when I was 19, which is the average age for Senegal.
I had a scholarship to go to Morocco for university studies, but I lost the scholarship. To this day, I do not know the reason. A year later, I tried to join what was the only medical school then in Senegal and I was told that only recent high school graduates from that year were eligible. Since I did not have money to leave Senegal for college, I took part-time classes at the British Senegalese Institute, hoping that I could one day attend college somewhere. I had a cousin in the U.S. who advised me to apply to colleges here.
During that time, I visited an uncle who had a place in one of the biggest markets in Senegal. He asked me, “Why is it that you’re not trying to go outside of Senegal to continue your education?” I told him that I was trying, but he said, “No, you’re not trying hard enough. You should go.” This is a person who really loved me and who believed in me, who wanted me to continue my education. I told him, “Look, I have a passport and a visa to go to the U.S., but I don’t have the money to buy the tickets.” He offered to help. I said, “If you want to help, here’s what we can do. I can borrow money from you, and then when I go to the U.S., I’ll pay you back. I don’t know when I’m going to be able to pay you back, obviously, because my goal is to go for education, meaning that I won’t be having an income for the foreseeable future.” He said, “That’s not a problem. Just go and I’ll help you.” He was the one who bought the tickets for me, and that’s how I came to the U.S.
When I landed at JFK on August 30, 1998, I was very excited but also worried. This was the first time I had been outside Senegal. I had $26 in my pocket. A taxi driver offered to take me to the Bronx, where my cousin was. We could not find the address. And I spent my first night at the taxi driver’s house, and he fed me and made me feel at ease. The next morning we did find the right address.
I did not have money to go to school right away. So I worked as a busboy at a restaurant. During my lunch break, I would go to the New York Public Library and look through college handbooks for schools that offered scholarships to international students. That’s how I came across Bard College. They have a program called Distinguished Scientist Scholarships that pay full tuition for students who are interested in the sciences or math. I applied, and during the interview I told them, “I know that my background is not the typical background here, but I think within the resources that I had, I did reasonably well, and I hope to do well if you give me the opportunity.” Two weeks later, they sent me an acceptance letter.
I started out majoring in molecular biology, and then I took classes in physics and chemistry, which I fell in love with, so these subjects became my focus. After that, I applied to medical school and ended up at Columbia.