When Sam Joshua graduated from the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences last month, it was the latest step of a winding journey that began in the windswept sands of sub-Saharan northern Nigeria.
Joshua spent the first 10 years of his life in a rural part of the African nation with his parents and three siblings, a family trying to make its way out of poverty.
“Growing up, things were just incredibly difficult,” Joshua said. “We were just really getting by. So many times I got kicked out of school for not being able to afford tuition fees.”
Like millions of others, Joshua’s family moved to Lagos, a mega-city in southwest Nigeria, looking for opportunities. He would seize them again and again.
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Lagos, population 16 million, was a major change: noisy, cramped and densely packed.
But the family found what it was looking for. Joshua’s father became a police officer, and the kids were able to stay in school.
Joshua graduated from high school in 2006. He wanted to be a petrochemical engineer in Nigeria’s booming oil industry. But there were no spots for him in the country’s colleges.
“They have a lot more people graduating high school than colleges available,” Joshua said.
A recruiter from Wilberforce University opened a new path. If Joshua could pay the tuition, there was a slot for him at the private, historically black university in Ohio.
Everyone chipped in to make it work.
“My family came together and came up with the resources,” Joshua said.
Joshua spent only two years at Wilberforce, but they changed his path.
After his sophomore year he landed a special internship at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
For six weeks he shadowed Timothy Feltes, a pediatric cardiologist who is now co-director of the hospital’s heart center. Joshua attended lectures with the doctor and went room to room with him, seeing patients.
Feltes said by email the workdays typically started before 7 a.m., but Joshua was never late and was always enthusiastic.
“He listened carefully to the physicians and nurses who explained to him the heart defects, the physical examination and the treatment strategy of the patients,” Feltes said. “At the end of the day, Sam would read up on his patients to gain even more insight. He was like a sponge.”
Feltes said Joshua was exactly the type of student Nationwide seeks for its Summer Education and Research in Clinical Healthcare, or SEARCH, internship: high GPA, interested in the sciences and might not otherwise get the opportunity to explore careers in medicine.
On the last day of the program, Joshua gave a presentation that included an anecdote about reading to a patient who was recovering from open-heart surgery. He was hooked.
“During the course of that six weeks, that was when I first found out what it was like to work in medicine, what kind of impact you can have on patients,” Joshua said. “… That was the big turnaround point for me.”
He wanted to be a doctor, which would mean more school and more tuition fees.
After searching online, he decided to transfer to Missouri State University in Springfield, which had lower tuition and more scholarship opportunities.
As he finished his undergraduate work there, he also applied to medical schools and waited on word.
Joshua’s family waited too, back in Nigeria.
“They’ve always been very supportive of whatever choices I make, as long as it’s not something wildly crazy,” Joshua said. “But they were just concerned because they know it’s a very competitive career field. … They kept praying and hoping I would get accepted to a med school here.”
Joshua got into KCU and threw himself into his studies initially.
Then unrest in his home country fought for his attention.
The Islamic extremist group Boko Haram took control of the area where he was born and terrorized a population that included some members of his extended family who still lived there. The group caused international outrage when members kidnapped 276 teenage girls in April 2014.
By then Joshua’s immediate family had moved from Lagos to Jos, a smaller city in the center of the country. Boko Haram’s tentacles reached there, too, and in May 2014, two bombs ripped through the city’s business district, where his mother worked.
She was unharmed, but 118 people died in the attack. Joshua was shaken.
“It made it extremely challenging to focus on my schoolwork,” he said.
He returned to Nigeria that summer, spending time with his family and reassuring himself that they were OK.
Then he came back to Kansas City and plowed into his schoolwork again.
When “Match Day” came in March of this year, Joshua and thousands of other graduating medical school students waited to see if they had received one of the coveted residency slots that would allow them to continue on the path to being practicing physicians.
Once again Joshua was competing for a limited number of opportunities to live his dream. Once again, he seized it: He was accepted into Indiana University Hospital’s internal medicine residency program. He starts Monday, and after his three years there he plans to pursue a cardiology fellowship and then practice in the U.S., at least at first.
“If I would go back (to Nigeria), it probably would not be permanently but maybe just get involved in community, maybe teach in university or medical school,” Joshua said. “Plus I need to pay Uncle Sam back his loan money that he gave me.”
Joshua’s parents were not able to come to Kansas City for graduation day. But his older brother, Jude, who now lives and works in Hong Kong, was able to attend with his wife. The rest of the family watched online. Joshua’s younger brother is in college in Nigeria and his sister works in Lagos.
Feltes said he couldn’t be more proud of his protege and is looking forward to seeing his future unfold.
“He had to overcome many obstacles to get to the U.S., to compete, to succeed,” Feltes said. “He has great resilience. I can’t imagine achieving what he has in his young career.”