The Power of Resilience

Ayamo Oben
SMDEP, Class of 2009
SMDEP was a genuinely life-changing experience for me.

“When people tell me I can’t, I feel even more driven to prove I can,” says Ayamo Oben.

Oben, 23, is an evangelist for self-determination. “Nobody can stop you from achieving what you really want to achieve,” she says emphatically.

A native of Cameroon who migrated to the United States when she was 16, Oben arrived at Duke University for her SMDEP session with a rigorous educational background and brimming with confidence. “I went there thinking I would sail through,” she laughs. “But it was way more challenging than I expected.”

On a scale of one to 10 ranking motivation, Oben gives SMDEP a 13, crediting the program for clinching her acceptance to medical school. “It was a genuinely life-changing experience for me,” she says. “I never would have gotten here without SMDEP.”

The pipeline is well primed for the third-year student at Duke School of Medicine, who has been tapped to teach SMDEP sessions for new cohorts. She delights in telling aspiring physicians that she was accepted by four medical schools despite a lower-than-average MCAT score. “I never want any of my students to feel like they can’t succeed,” says Oben. “I want them to know that if I could do it, so can they.”

Oben’s journey to Durham began in a developing country where universities are, in her words, “mediocre compared to the Western world.” Intent on finding high-quality college opportunities, her parents sent her to live with her aunt in Acworth, Ga., about 30 miles northwest of Atlanta, for her final year of high school.

Although she initially had trouble adjusting—“I cried a lot!”—she eventually embraced her new environs. The transition from high school, however, was not without challenges.

“Only one college accepted me,” she says wryly. “The University of Georgia and Georgia State both rejected me because my English wasn’t up to par!”

But if there’s one word that sums up Oben, it’s “resilient.” She ultimately matriculated at Kennesaw State University (KSU), just a few miles from Acworth, and immersed herself in the study of biology while minoring in Spanish. Her English also improved markedly. 

“SMDEP showed me my weaknesses. Being aware of your weaknesses is the first step toward conquering them.”

Her academic and research adviser at KSU, Army Lester, PhD, describes Oben as diligent and tenacious. “Ayamo can work as hard as anyone, under any type of condition, and somehow maintain a level head,” he says.

Her diligence led her to SMDEP, almost by accident. Searching online for summer classes, she posted about her quest on a program fair’s blog and received a Facebook message with a list of programs. SMDEP was on it.


Coursework and Camaraderie

Oben says she enjoyed the rigors of the program. “It fit well with my background and discipline,” she explains. She also appreciated that the curriculum didn’t focus solely on MCAT prep. “They weren’t just teaching us how to take the test. They were trying to make us better individuals overall.”

“SMDEP showed me my weaknesses.” She quickly adds that being aware of your weaknesses is the first step toward conquering them.

“There was such camaraderie [at SMDEP]. I felt that if my med school classes were anything like this, I would be very happy.”

Oben was further impressed by the abundance of information available to her, the helpfulness of the faculty and staff, and especially her fellow students.

“Compared to our peers, we felt like we had a lot of catching up to do, but we were working hard to change that,” she says. “There was such camaraderie. I felt that if my med school classes were anything like this, I would be very happy.

Maureen Cullins, director of the SMDEP Duke site, remembers Oben bringing a quiet presence to the class. “She was a deep thinker, and had a big impact by sharing her academic gifts with her cohort of scholars.”

 That summer, Oben developed interviewing skills and, through conversations with medical students, insights about the medical school application process. Both would soon prove invaluable. 


Vanquishing “The Beast”

“The first time I took the MCAT, I got a 24,” says Oben. “I knew I couldn’t compete with that score.” Despite several more months of study and practice questions, her second run at the MCAT raised her score by only one point.

As the deadline for final submissions loomed, and convinced that medical school was beyond her grasp, she nearly abandoned the applications she had begun. “I didn’t see the point,” she says ruefully. “I felt I was at the end of the line.”

One of her undergraduate professors told her she couldn’t get into a U.S. medical school with a 25. The teacher recommended applying to schools outside the country. Oben’s resilience kicked in.

“When I heard that,” she says, “I went on an application-writing rampage!”

The night final submissions were due, she still had some applications outstanding. Worn down by two jobs and a heavy course load, she went home to sleep. By then, her three siblings had joined her at KSU; they all lived with their aunt, and their mother was visiting.

Oben’s slumber was short-lived. “My mother pretty much dragged me downstairs,” she says, laughing at the memory. “Then she handed me a laptop and told me to finish applying.”

With her professor’s words reverberating in her head, and her family helping to organize and edit her thoughts, she completed and submitted the remaining documents. She hit “send” on the Duke University application—known to medical students as “The Beast”—20 minutes before the deadline.

Ultimately, she was accepted by four schools, Duke among them. Oben returned to Durham, this time as a medical student.


Get Up and Keep Going

At Duke, she was reunited with Maureen Cullins, who directs the university’s Multicultural Resource Center in addition to overseeing its SMDEP efforts.

“During her tenure here, she’s been an outstanding student and an exemplar of the servant leader,” says Cullins, noting that Oben has been active in high school recruitment efforts, participated in international service trips, and gotten involved with the local community.

She also remains a steadfast advocate for SMDEP. “Ayamo was one of the first to come by the Center to see if she could be of assistance, especially to upcoming SMDEP scholars,” says Cullins, adding, “She’s only the second first-year medical student I have hired to work in the program. She performed admirably in a difficult course, and was one of the 2012 cohort’s favorite teaching assistants.”

 “Until SMDEP, I didn’t realize I could be both a doctor and a teacher,” says Oben. “I love teaching.”

As an SMDEP instructor, she strives to inspire. “I love telling students how I got here after scoring a 25 on my MCAT,” she says. “You have to get up and keep going, and do other things on your application so the score becomes less important.”

“If they get a 28 and they’re disappointed, they can remember my score was lower than that—and here I am at Duke.”


Service and Civic Engagement

Scheduled to complete her medical degree in May 2015, Oben has set her sights on a specialty in obstetrics and gynecology.

“I want women to feel empowered about their health—to ask questions, have a point of view, and speak up for themselves,” she says. She believes many women are inclined to prioritize their family’s health above their own. “To a lot of women, a pap smear is not that pressing compared to their child’s health.”

“I want women to feel empowered about their health—to ask questions, have a point of view, and speak up for themselves.”

Calling global health and women’s health her two greatest interests, Oben says, “My plan after residency is to work in an organization—or maybe even set one up—that’s dedicated to both.” Eventually, she hopes to bring that work to Cameroon.

Until then, she wants to practice in Durham and elsewhere in North Carolina. “I need to give back to the communities that have helped propel me to where I am today.”

 That doesn’t surprise Maureen Cullins. “When I think of Ayamo, I think of service and resilience,” she says. KSU’s Army Lester echoes her view. “Ayamo has a personality for service. She keeps on giving and giving until she gets the results she wants.” 

For Oben, those results include greater diversity in the health professions.

 “The students coming up behind us will never choose medicine if they can’t identify with it,” she says. “I want to help them see that anything—anything—they really want to achieve is within their reach.”