After immigrating to the U.S. in the 1st grade and my parents’ divorce, I lived with my mother who had been an anesthesiologist in India. Her first job in the U.S. was as a 7/11 cashier so during this time we jumped around from rented rooms to family members’ spare beds in over 10 cities in Virginia. Since I switched schools a lot, being unable to make long term relationships or join clubs left me with education and drawing as forms of stability. As a last resort to find a stable job, when I was in 6th grade, we drove to Seattle and trekked a huge blue box of my mother’s old medical books that I began to read out of sheer curiosity about the human body. Integrating my passion for painting portraits with learning what lay under the dermal layer, I soon found myself waking up early to read USMLE lecture books before school. I believed that I could learn whatever I wanted regardless of age or grade in school.
I was motivated by the story of my granduncle, Bhagat Singh, a freedom fighter in India, who revised texts on Indian revolutions and policy at an early age. Learning his story pushed me to focus on serving society and I thought I could best do this through medicine. However, my mother placed a huge emphasis on artistic talents, which helped me to also learn several instruments and painting styles. Once I got to high school, she never checked my grades or my assignments. This helped me develop my internal drive for school and learning.
Starting at age 13, I spent my summers shadowing at a hospital my extended family owned in India. I wanted to figure out whether medicine was the right field for me. After seeing the healthcare conditions in India, I knew for sure that I wanted to practice, and potentially earn my J.D. and M.P.H. to provide me with a better perspective. I also began shadowing doctors in the U.S. through my high school premed club and by calling several clinics on my own. I still shadow doctors when I can because it has been a great way for me to see so many aspects of a career in medicine. I spent time volunteering in cancer and cardiac wards and pretty much any place that would accept someone under the age of 18.
In 11th grade, my cousin informed me that it was possible to start community college at a subsidized cost, so I decided to enroll. I was able to do it through the Running Start Program, which allows Washington state students to complete their high school diploma and associates at their own pace. Looking over premed course requirements, I realized most medical schools require three calculus classes, three biology classes with labs, three chemistry classes with labs, and three organic chemistry classes with labs, just to be eligible for admission. For a high school student, this felt crazy to consider. After speaking to my advisors about my plans, I chose to take a course load of 4-5 courses a quarter, even though the program only covered the cost of 3 courses a quarter.
Around that time, my mother had a car accident which left me balancing my courses while also having the responsibility of being my mother’s caregiver. While I sometimes felt unprepared, I found that I adapted and providing care strengthened my love for the field. My mother is the strongest woman I know and seeing her recover slowly over two years helped keep me motivated in school. The flexibility in community college, including a great deal of understanding from both professors and peers allowed me to handle hospital visits and emergencies. Luckily, I had my father (who, although over 3,000 miles away raising my older brother) helped provide emotional support and guidance.
To help financially while my mother recovered, I began working several part time jobs: Toys “R” Us salesperson, a research intern, and a college STEM tutor. I recall many days where I ordered “large fries” to get me through the day at community college because it was the cheapest and most caloric food on the menu. In order to relieve stress, I went to the gym every night after school. I was fortunate to always have a place to stay and to be able to come home to my mother as she got better. To make sure my grades did not suffer, I studied at school as late as possible and then drove to a restaurant with wifi to finish the rest of the work, sometimes only to end up back at college in the morning. I often wished that instead I had been at home spending more time with my mother. Doing this, I was able to complete 145 credits at community college, which allowed me to graduate with two associate’s degrees (and a high school diploma) when I was 17.
Next I chose to go to University of California, San Diego to earn my bachelor’s because of the research opportunities, location, and financial aid package. I did not want to live in a dorm because I knew renting would be more affordable. Finding roommates and landlords who would rent to a 17-year-old was challenging (I can understand why!) but again, I was fortunate. I not only found them, they were awesome. Being at a university scared me at first because I had heard stories of freshmen earning low GPAs, but I decided I just had to study even harder than I had in community college. I enrolled in a CNA course as taking care of my mother at home had made me passionate about home health and nursing care.
When I turned 18, I graduated from the CNA course and was excited to begin working as a nursing assistant. In January of my first year in university, I also started to prepare for the MCAT® exam and then prepare to apply to medical school in June. My peers had been older, but I had worked day and night to gain experience to try and match their astounding efforts. I was fortunate to also have GPA and MCAT scores that allowed me to apply as a competitive applicant. I also got the letters of recommendation required and continued to volunteer and do research in microfluidics. After submitting my AMCAS application and taking the MCAT, I changed my focus so that I could pursue more education-based and leadership-focused experiences. This led to my developing Jump Start Med Ed, an online early introduction to topics in medicine based on USMLE material (which will likely be accredited next year) and a test prep company where we have just published our 4th book. I also continued to work as a CNA which allowed me to be inspired by my interactions with patients.
Throughout community college and university, I surrounded myself with more mature peers, and learned aspects of maturity and professionalism that I do not think I could have learned in any other way. I competed only with myself and challenged myself to improve by constantly questioning if what I was doing was enough to help serve future patients better. I also realized that that were some struggles I overcame from growing up living in temporary rooms with my mother and later on taking care of her as she recovered over two years.
While it was great to have completed university requirements in 2 years, I was concerned that medical schools would not admit me because I was too young. After speaking with several people, I realized that schools look at the whole applicant, their journey, their experiences and their knowledge. My application would be evaluated the same as any other applicant.
I was fortunate to be granted interviews at several medical schools. While I didn’t follow the same timeline or have the same experiences that older applicants have, my interviewers were interested in how activities on my application began early, and sometimes had been completed in a shorter amount of time. In fact, some of my interviewers also started medical school at 19 through skipping grades and early acceptance programs.
Having once believed that college and medical school were nowhere close to being affordable for my family, I have seen things come together through financial aid and my parents’ hard work. What has made me happier is that my journey has motivated my mother to prepare for the USMLE so that she hopefully can pursue being a physician again here in the United States. Now, as I prepare to attend Boston University, I have focused my efforts on a new project to create a homeless shelter (School for Gifted Youth) with the funds raised from my test prep business. The shelter will allow teens to finish their degrees online with the help of tutors. Working with the homeless, after knowing the feeling of “temporary housing” as a child, and more so, witnessing friends suffer, has been one of my lifelong goals. I’m looking forward to continuing to follow the example of my granduncle and help to continue to help society, and I hope, make it better.
About Amareen Dhaliwal
Amareen is a first year medical student at Boston University School of Medicine and graduate of the University of California San Diego where she majored in biochemistry and cell biology. In addition to her M.D., she aims to pursue a J.D. and to continue her work in business, education, and with the homeless.