By Jessica Benally
Having children should not deter others from fulfilling their passion; for me, that passion is medicine. Since a young age, I knew I wanted to go into medicine despite limited exposure to health careers. When I was younger, my father always told me that I was going to be a doctor when I “grew up” and so I knew I was college bound after graduation. However, under the impression that I knew everything about the world, I got married when I was 18, straight out of high school. I entered as a freshman at UNM; I failed my first class and had to drop out shortly after. College was a different experience that I thought it was going to be and not knowing where to get help set me back. When I had my daughter at 20, I was dealing with an abusive alcoholic spouse, an all-too-frequent occurrence for Native communities. Eventually, we divorced and I was faced with raising her alone when she was 9 months old.
Going back to school was a difficult decision, not only because of leaving my daughter but I had lost all my scholarships and knew that I had to finance my own education. My family helped me, encouraged me, pushed me to go back to school; without their help, I would’ve stayed at rock bottom. The sufferings I faced after high school is a common scene for women on the reservation. I’ve witnessed many of my peers succumb to substance abuse, chronic health issues, and even domestic violence. As a single mother, I acknowledge that despite the hardships in my life, education is one of my personal successes. I continued my higher education and accomplished more than I expected when I was twenty years old.
After graduating with my Associates’ Degree, I stepped out of my comfort zone and accepted a summer-long biochemistry research program in Las Cruces, 5 hours away from my baby. If I hadn’t accepted this opportunity, I would’ve never found my enthusiasm for biochemistry. In undergrad, I tried to never miss class even when I didn’t have a babysitter. I would often bring my daughter to my classes (of course, I asked the professor at least a day ahead) – nutrition, chemistry, anatomy, etc. – my daughter would sit for 75-minute classes and write her “notes.” She would even make the “sigh” that follows when a professor is going too fast to write everything from their slides.
The day I graduated with my B.S. in Biochemistry was filled with a whole spectrum of emotion; anxiety due to the speech I had to make in front of UNM and tribal professionals, euphoric because I am a first-generation college graduate. I know I have the perseverance to exceed in medicine because I’ve endured many personal trials, such as, being a young mother and coming from a disadvantaged background. Learning to divide my time between being a mother and a college student was a necessity.
When I was applying to medical school, I talked to current medical students and many of them had higher MCAT scores, greater clinical observations and research positions, which really intimidated me because I didn’t feel like the most ideal student. Regardless, I didn’t let those facts discourage my career goal simply because I felt discouraged and like an imposter, thinking, “Do I really stand a chance against these people?” In recalling my clinical observations, the thought of caring for my Navajo people as a future doctor made my desire to go into medicine more meaningful.
My career in medicine extends beyond self-success but to inspire other people within my community and other Navajo students. Furthermore, after I become a practicing physician, I see myself going back to my hometown, Gallup, and serving at Gallup Indian Medical Center. I was born at this hospital and so was my daughter; I feel a primal connection to this community.
Wrapping up the third week of medical school, I found out that I am 1 of 3 native students accepted in this cohort of 103 students. With a parting slogan, don’t be afraid to embrace all opportunities!