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Resident Match Day Diaries: The matriarchs that got me through medical school

She was the first in her family to try for medical school, and had no idea how to pay for it. Her parents told her everything would work out — yet even they didn't quite know how.

Ivy Maina (center) poses with Dr. Bennett (front); and Erika Dawson, Associate Director of the Program for Diversity and Inclusion (right) at a recent event.
Ivy Maina (center) poses with Dr. Bennett (front); and Erika Dawson, Associate Director of the Program for Diversity and Inclusion (right) at a recent event.Read moreDaniel Burke / Perelman College of Medicine

Editor’s note: Friday is Match Day, when the National Resident Matching Program tells medical students where they are going to be continuing their training. So it’s a very big deal in Philadelphia, the “city of meds and eds.” This week, soon-to-be graduates share their thoughts on reaching this milestone. This is the second installment; see the first one here.

Fifty-five years ago, Dr. Arlene Bennett became the first black woman to graduate from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Through her perseverance, she paved the way for so many women who look like me. I’ll be proudly walking in her footsteps as I cross the stage during graduation in May.

Meeting Dr. Bennett a few weeks ago reminded me of the other matriarchs who have shaped my journey. My grandmothers, both born and raised in Kenya, raised my mother and father while navigating the obstacles that come with being young, single mothers in a developing country. My paternal grandmother, Monica Nyutu, raised her son Geoffrey to believe in the power women wield and so he fostered in me and my sister the faith that we could be whatever we wanted. My maternal grandmother, Agnes Ndiva, had an entrepreneurial streak with a go-getter mentality, and inspired my mother, Catherine, to defy all odds.

Together, in order to escape the political instability that plagued Kenya, my parents harnessed the spirit of perseverance inherited from their mothers and embarked on a journey that would take our family from Nairobi to London to Toronto. Watching them navigate the adversities that young immigrants often face gave me the courage to pursue medicine.

With the example my parents set, becoming the first physician in my family seemed entirely possible. I tried not to worry about the fact that I wasn’t at all certain how my family could afford my medical education as I focused on pre-med studies at Princeton University; the cost of attending medical school can be up to $400,000 and international students like me are often required to have a significant portion of the sum in hand before even starting medical school.

What my family lacked in wealth they more than made up through their encouragement and unwavering faith in me. Even when I doubted their conviction that if I worked hard, the rest would fall into place, they held fast to their certainty.

I remember the elation I felt when I opened the acceptance letter to the Perelman School of Medicine — quickly diminished by the seemingly insurmountable financial barrier.

In the end, another matriarch would play an indelible role in my journey to becoming a physician. Marjorie G. Ernest, a generous philanthropist with whom I now share many fond memories and a dear friendship, established a merit-based scholarship that made possible my dreams — and those of many other students.

At every step, I have been supported in both obvious and subtle ways, by those who are closest to me, like my partner, my family, and my friends, and those who aren’t even aware of their influence, like Dr. Bennett, who at 85 is still practicing psychiatry.

I am reminded time and again that my accomplishments are not mine alone but are the sum total of those who have motivated and inspired me along the way.

Ivy Maina is a fourth-year medical student at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, looking forward to a career in Otolaryngology.