“I Believe in the American Dream.” Hesbon Isaboke’s Journey From Nyanchonori, Kenya to Rutgers Medical School.

Going to medical school is usually a process that begins while one is an undergraduate student

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Hesbon Moindi Isaboke was only 11 years old when his family moved to the United States of America. His father, then a teacher based in Mombasa had won the Green Card Lottery and together with his family, opted to go after the proverbial American dream. As African Warrior Magazine found out, that dream has turned into reality for Hesbon. This month, he becomes the first member of his family to graduate college. He is also working toward a career in medicine, a goal that seemed unimaginable growing up.

AWM sat down with Hesbon, and this is what he had to say about his journey from Kenya to America.

AWM: What do you remember the most growing up in Kenya?

I grew in up in the Kisii highlands of Kenya in a small village called Nyanchonori, which is near the town of Keroka. My family had a farm on which we grew corn, beans, millet, and napier grass. My father was a primary school teacher at Nemora Primary Academy which was the school I began my education at when I turned five.

Being at a school where my father was also my teacher gave me a good foundation academically. This meant that I had someone to help me with homework at home and someone to help me learn many things early on.

My father ended up transferring to the opposite side of the country in Mombasa, Kenya to teach and I was transferred to Nyanchonori Primary school in the fourth grade. The strong foundation I had received at Nemora helped set me up for success when I transferred. Being a son of a teacher was an advantage for me, but it also meant I had a lot to live up to. Teachers in the Kisii community are revered because they are the givers of education, which is every parent’s priority for their children. I was chosen for roles such as class prefect and I was also expected to perform well, which I did.

I am also the oldest in my family, so I had to be in charge at the household when my father was away teaching during the school year and my mother was tending to the farm or selling corn (maize), bananas, or tomatoes at a small kiosk we had.  At the time, I had two younger brothers who I took responsibility to bathe, make sure they were fed, and that they were doing their homework. Sometimes I would help at the kiosk when my mother had to go milk the cows at 4 PM or when she had to make dinner. During the time for harvesting the corn, I would also assist in harvesting it, transporting, and storing it. Lifestyle at Nyanchonori village was all I knew. We grew crops and kept cows, chicken, and goats all which we survived on. I learned how to cook at around 8 years of age, so I could make breakfast in the morning before walking to school a mile and a half away and during lunch. Lunch was not served at school, so we had to come home for lunch.

AWM: Are there challenges you recall having to endure?

As a child I had to walk to school every morning. There was no such thing as a school bus. This meant that I had to wake up early enough, get ready for school, and be there on time otherwise I would be punished. Yes, there was beating in school. This was the same for the morning and for returning to school after lunch.

My village did not have electricity. This meant that for cooking I would have to gather firewood. There was no luxury of having warm showers, and kerosene lamps provided the light to do my homework at night.

When I became older, a challenge that I embraced was not only taking care of myself, but my two younger brothers who are 5 years and 7 years younger than me. As the oldest sibling it was mostly up to me to go down to the river to fetch water for daily use. I had to acquire enough for cooking, feeding the cows, and washing the school uniforms before school started again the following Monday.

AWM: What dreams did you harbor growing up?

I wanted to be a pilot growing up. I remember climbing the trees in my homestead and looking up to the sky to look at airplanes and imagining how amazing it must’ve been for such an object to be flying through the sky. With those planes I imagined science, travel, and possibility. I wanted to be a pilot because in my mind it would’ve been amazing to be controlling all the buttons in the cockpit and travelling to all the places in the world which I only heard about on the radio or read about in magazines.

AWM: At 11 years of age, you migrated to America. What influenced this move?

While my father was in Mombasa teaching, he applied for an immigration lottery to the USA and my family was selected. The USA is known as the land of opportunity where I come from, so any chance to emigrate was always welcomed and sought after. After the emigration process was over, my family of five at the time arrived in the USA on November 4, 2008, the day President Obama won his first term. It was a beginning of something new for me, my family, and America.

AWM: Did America present (significant) variations with what you were used to in Kenya?

The English was a bit different but being in school helped me learn the different ways Americans write and pronounce words. Football meant something different in America, so I found myself learning about American football as well as basketball. The Garber family, who became family friends helped me assimilate to the American culture. They would invite me over for sleep overs, their son’s high school football games, swimming at the pool and more.

I found out that going to see movies was a favorite pastime in America. The first movie I saw in theaters was 2012, which was quite an experience. I also remember learning how to swim at a community pool during the summers, watching the Memorial Day parade, and the fourth of July fireworks. The school I attended was much better than what I was used to in Kenya. There were projectors, nice playgrounds, and I didn’t have to go home for lunch. It was all new to me, but I embraced the change and made friends. I was the interesting foreign kid with the accent who kids at school came to learn about. Since I spoke another language, they wanted to know how to say many things in Swahili, and to tell them about Kenya. Being different helped me make friends because they came to me instead of me going to them. Eventually I made friends around the neighborhood and after school I would spend time with them playing video games or riding bikes. I was becoming more American day by day.

AWM: Which college were you attending and what course were you studying?

After high school I attended Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ. I majored in Biological Sciences and I was on the Pre-Medicine track. I also took Swahili for a couple of semesters to keep reminding me of where I came from.

AWM: Describe the college admission process.

Going to medical school is usually a process that begins while one is an undergraduate student. It is required that one take the right classes to prepare to take the Medical College Admission Test, MCAT. The score of this test is needed for application to various medical schools. What was different about my admission process is that I went through a pipeline program called Access Med offered by the Office for Diversity and Academic Success in the Sciences, ODASIS. The program helps students like me who are underrepresented in medicine to achieve the goal of becoming a physician with academic support and guidance.

Admission to medical school is very competitive and the minority population makes a very small percentage of those accepted. The ODASIS program offers supplemental help in sciences classes pre-medicine students take so they can succeed. It also offers a free MCAT class with books so that students like me can learn the material and score well. The Access Med Phase II component of the programs allows eligible students to take medical school classes during the fall semester of their senior year to get experience of how medical school will be like while also getting credit for their undergraduate major.

The application to Access Med program requires an MCAT score and an interview process just like any regular applicant. Upon successful completion of the Access Med program, the students are offered a seat in the upcoming class. There is no scholarship given particularly for the program. The goal is to be accepted to medical school, and in this case, Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. Here’s a link to the program’s details: http://rwjms.rutgers.edu/education/medical_education/programs/access_med.html

AWM: Why is going to medical school a big deal for you?

I am the first in my family to graduate from college but going to medical school is setting the bar even higher for my cousins and siblings. Medical school is the last time I am going to be a full-time student before graduating to the workforce where I would get to use my medical skills to diagnose, prevent, or treat diseases.

AWM: How is education in America compare to Kenya based on your experience?

I went to school only up to 6th grade in Kenya.  The main difference I noticed was the structure of the academic year. In Kenya the academic year goes from January to December while in America it is from September to June. My first day of school in America was on December 1st, 2018. The schedule at school was also different. The school in America was big enough where every teacher had his or her classroom so when the bell rang, the students moved to the next classroom on their schedule. In Kenya, the students stayed in one classroom all day and the teachers switched in and out. There was no such thing as projectors, laptops, or white boards in Kenya. All teachers had was a textbook, a rectangular blackboard and a white chalk to teach from.

My school in Kenya was built on limestone so when it didn’t rain for a while, there would be dust everywhere. In Kenya we had terms, but in America we had marking periods. In Kenya the same classes were taught during both terms, but in America some classes ended halfway through the year and we had to chance to pick other electives to take.

AWM: Do you want to take your skills back to Kenya someday or America is now your permanent home?

I do plan on taking my skills back to Kenya someday. Even though America will be my primary residence, I plan on periodically visiting and keeping communication with the community that I came from. It would be a dream come true to go back as a doctor and perhaps with a team of volunteers to offer medical services there.

AWM: What do you miss about Kenya?

I miss my family, friends, and the food.

AWM: How do you navigate challenges brought about by racial discrimination?

Racial discrimination was not something that was on my mind when I first came to this country, but as I have grown up, it has been on my mind occasionally. I have been fortunate to go to a school which is very ethnically diverse, but I do realize that racial discrimination is still prevalent. The way I approach racial discrimination is by focusing on who I am as a person. There have been people like me who have been successful despite racial discrimination and I know I can be successful too, so I keep my hope up.

I believe that racial discrimination comes from an insecurity one has within. An insecurity on the kind of potential that a person like me could fulfil if given the opportunity. Humans are evolutionarily selfish, so they always look out for themselves first, but the modern human race is becoming more mixed, inclusive, and progressive. This gives me hope that discrimination will eventually decrease with the coming generations.

AWM: What is your message to a teen in Kenya who has self-doubts

I would tell them to keep dreaming, keep imagining, and seek ways to make those dreams a reality. Make opportunities and strive do everything no matter how big or small with all your might.

AWM: What do your parents make of the journey you are on?

My parents keep telling me to remain focused and make the dreams a reality and be an inspiration to many.

AWM: Do you believe in the proverbial ‘American dream”

Yes, hard work and determination leads to success, even when there are some setbacks.

AWM: Describe a typical day for you.

I live my days through my Google calendar. I set up my alarm based on the first thing I must do in the morning. My first thing to in the morning is usually either class or work. I tutor for high school and middle schools early in the morning on some days of the week so that gets me out of bed at 6:30 AM. I eat breakfast at about 10 AM as a break before my next commitment.

Throughout the day I would either be going to class or listening to lectures and studying at a library, lounge, or empty classroom. After a few hours I would take a break and go to the gym but usually when it’s around exam time I would meet with other students to study and therefore I skip the gym. I would have dinner at around 6:00 PM before studying some more. I would finish the night by showering and then watching an episode or two on Netflix before going to bed at midnight.

AWM: We have covered a lot of ground. What else do you want to add?

I would like to thank the School of Arts and Sciences Educational Opportunity Fund (SAS EOF) program for making it possible for me to be in college. If it wasn’t for the financial help and guidance, coming to Rutgers would not have been possible. I would also like to thank MaryClare Garber, who became a mentor for me and helped me get into college after my mother passed away. She connected me with the right people and programs (including EOF) to help me apply for colleges and financial aid. And I would like to thank ODASIS for creating a path for me to medical school.

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