INTERVIEW: From Kwekwe to medical school in the United States

INTERVIEW: From Kwekwe to medical school in the United States

By College of St Rose News

Hellen Jumo ’20
Hometown: Kwekwe, Zimbabwe

Current: first-year student at David Geffen School of Medicine, UCLA; founder of Goal Getter Foundation

If Hellen Jumo hadn’t connected with the United States Achievers Programshe would not have come to Saint Rose. If she hadn’t joined the College’s BOLD Leadership Network, she might not have had the tools to reach for what she wants.

And, if Jumo had grown up in a community with adequate healthcare, she probably wouldn’t be studying medicine.

“If you had told me that I would be a doctor as a young, orphaned girl from Kwekwe who often missed school due to unpaid tuition, I would not have believed it,” says Jumo, whose path from southern Africa to southern California runs through Saint Rose.

In September, she realized a goal she set as a child: starting medical school. Along the way, she has been published, joined a diplomatic effort in Zimbabwe, and started a non-profit. Shortly after taking her first exams as UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, she shared her journey:

Please describe your background and how you came to Saint Rose. 

I grew up in Zimbabwe’s Midlands Province under the custody of my grandparentsThe community is very tight-knit, everyone knows each other. I was very vocal and competed in a lot of debates, quizzes, and chess competitions.

High school was difficult because I was (sometimes) sent home because of not being able to pay tuition. I walked around campus looking sideways, avoiding the administration. But, I graduated as the top student in my high school examinations. This allowed me to be selected for the USAP programme which identifies promising high school students in Zimbabwe and coaches them to apply to colleges outside the country.

I was one of 30 students in the 2015 cohort. I got very familiar with the Common Application, and that’s how I came across Saint Rose. I loved that Saint Rose was a liberal college with small class sizes. I knew it would allow me to form meaningful connections. (Before I came here, I believed that since it was in New York, it was near Times Square!)

Describe the adjustment:                                                                                 

Although we are taught how to read and write in English in my Zimbabwe high school, we were rarely expected to know how to speak the language. At home, I mostly used my native tongues, Shona and Ndebele. I found it difficult to pronounce English words.

We do not receive any snow, and it never gets too cold! I was not prepared for winter. I remember my first day I went out with a light jacket only to get frostbite. I quickly realized that it was not the same as Zimbabwe.

I was worried that I would not fit in, but at Saint Rose, I didn’t have to worry.

You immersed yourself as a science tutor, peer leader, international orientation leader, and resident advisor. Why?   

The first volunteer event I attended was Reach Out Saint Rose. I was amazed by the collaboration and kindness of the students. I knew that I was meant to be at Saint Rose. The students, campus workers, and faculty were so friendly and kind, and Saint Rose quickly became my home away from home.

You were in the inaugural class of our BOLD Women’s Leadership Network which helps promising women college students attain success. Discuss the impact.  

I was surrounded by women with the same vision of advocating for women’s education and leadership. BOLD also offered leadership resources, mentorship, and financial support that allowed me to pursue opportunities I could not have otherwise pursued.

As rising seniors, BOLD scholars were encouraged to participate in internships. So, in the summer before senior year, I became an intern with the state Health Department’s inorganic and nuclear chemistry division. I tested water samples to make sure that it was safe. Also, at the Neural Stem Cell Institute Saint Rose and the BOLD program instilled in me the idea that I can enter spaces with fierce confidence. I hope to use that same voice to advocate for patients as a physician.

Growing up, you rarely saw a doctor. A personal tragedy that helped you choose your career path. 

When I was 11, my mother died of pneumoniathat could have been easily prevented if she had proper access to healthcare. The death of my mother and the need for better healthcare for my community sparked my interest in medicine.

Describe your Saint Rose science studies: 

Through the summer research program, I worked on fetal alcohol syndrome looking at mouse brains.

I fell in love with research. Through encouragement from my professors and support from BOLD, I joined the Neural Stem Cell Institute, where I worked with human models.

My professors were amazing mentors interested in my future. Having those relationships made a big difference because I could access opportunities quicker and had amazing recommendations that helped me get into rooms I never dreamed of entering.

After graduation, you headed to Boston: 

I worked with the Sahin Lab at the Boston Children’s Hospital/ Harvard Medical School.

Our research focused on the cellular mechanism(s) of axon guidance and its relationship to neurological dysfunction, especially in childhood neurological diseases.

I worked on rare diseases, including tuberous sclerosis complex(TSC), spastic paraplegia(SPG), succinic semialdehyde dehydrogenase deficiency syndrome (SSADH), and contributed to multiple publications. It comforts me to know that work will one day make a difference in patients’ lives.

What area of medicine are you interested in?

Neurology or cardiology. I am also trying to explore other specialties, so this might change. My goal is to practice medicine in underserved communities.

And, in your spare time (!), you established the Goal getter Foundation?

The Goal getter Foundation tackles women’s issues in Sub-Saharan Africa. Childhood marriages are common, and girls’ education is not a priority. By age 14, most of my peers were married with children.

I was lucky to get an education and saw how empowering it can be, so I decided to empower other women through creating Goal getter. “Period poverty,” or the struggle many women and girls face affording sanitary materials and information, is a common problem in Zimbabwe. Covid accentuated these circumstances as jobs were discontinued.

Through Goal getter, we were able to fundraise to support over 1,000 girls with sanitary pads to last a year. We also host biweekly baking, farming, and cosmetology entrepreneurial classes for teenage and single mothers in Kwekwe and surrounding areas.

How has your multicultural perspective shaped your studies? 

I have seen firsthand what living in abject poverty, with limited access to healthcare, social injustice, and lack of education can do to individuals, communities, and governments.

I have been working really hard to make sure that I become the first doctor in the family so that other kids who look or have the situation like me know that it is possible to become somebody.

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