Melaku Arega grew up in Ethiopia and moved to the United States at age 14. He is now a first-year medical student at Harvard.
Tell us about your life trajectory.
I was born and raised in Ethiopia until I was 14. The last five years, I lived in the capital city Addis; then I moved to Portland, Oregon when I was 14 with my father and two siblings.
The transition was interesting because it was the first time I was out of the country. It was also the first time I was exposed to lots of different cultures and races. The concept of race in Ethiopia was very different because everyone was black.
Also, when I moved, I was a freshman in high school, so there was a little bit of a difficulty navigating what it means to be a freshman in high school in America, where the social life is not something I was used to. When I was in high school, science and math were my strengths, and I kind of just took that path, partly because English was difficult for me and I was pushed to science and math.
My dad was also a nursing student at the time and that was another factor that exposed me more to healthcare and science back in high school. So I applied to college and ended up at Johns Hopkins for my undergraduate degree in Molecular Biology and Neuroscience. I studied abroad in England for one year. I graduated in 2017 and now I’m a first year medical student at HMS.
What was was like to move to a new country at a late age?
There are some positives in that I feel like I am still connected to my country where I’m from, and I feel like I can identify who I am with respect to my nationality or religion. But there are also some negatives. In a lot of ways, I feel like I started after everyone or later than others in the United States. It always felt like I have a lot of catching up to do to other students, whether in college or in medical school, and I think that a lot of the components are trying to close the language gap and making my own network. Overall, that’s helped me become a resilient student and person having to do that on my own.
You’re currently a first year medical student. Can you describe what that’s been like so far?
So far it’s been great. I feel like I’m learning a lot of science, and also I’m happy to get one day a week to see patients and be exposed to patients, which is why I came to medical school. That gives me the motivation to do my work and understand the physiology a little bit better. It’s also gratifying because it feels like this is what my parents wanted: to see their immigrant son be in a successful profession. I feel like a lot of the sacrifices they made leaving their own profession in Ethiopia is paying off through me and their siblings.
What was being premed like for you?
Being premed was stressful a lot of the time, and it always felt like there were a lot of boxes you had to check like research, extracurricular, leadership, teaching, etc. And you can lose your sense of why you’re going to medical school because you’re so occupied with checklists you have to do. What’s helped was finding a community in college that was a great support system, and that reminded me why it is that I want to be a physician and go to medical school. I would also add that being a medical student, I don’t feel these same stressors anymore and I can truly do what I’m interested in.
What is your advice for immigrant students interested in becoming physicians?
The first thing I would say is be patient and understand that things don’t happen that quickly, and don’t give up because something didn’t go the way we expected.
Second, it’s really important to start making networks early because usually one disadvantage for immigrants is that they’re starting late in the game and for the most part don’t know anyone in the country. So, the quicker immigrants start making relationships, the more likely they will find the help they need in the future.
The other thing is asking for help from other immigrants who have been successful, whether that’s reading their stories or reaching out to them, and finding out what they did right to get to where they are. I personally did that myself.
When you applied to medical school, you got into a lot of selective programs. What’s your advice for future applicants?
I would list three tangible [pieces of] advice for future applicants:
First, start the application early. I started putting together my AMCAS application early March. That really saved me a lot of time in June when the application opened. I’ve always heard that submitting early increases your chances of getting an interview invite. However, I would argue that it is more important to submit when you feel your application is ready. For me, I did not feel like my personal statement was where I wanted it to be by June 1st. So I decided to wait until I felt like it was an excellent statement. I ended up submitting end of June. In addition, I advise pre-writing the secondary application since you can already find the prompts online. That helped tremendously.
Second, take the MCAT over the summer, if possible. I took the MCAT in April and that was a rough time for me. I remember I was taking physics, cell biology, and a nervous system physiology course at the time. That was objectively my toughest semester at Hopkins, and I decided to also add MCAT on top of that. As a result, my social life suffered and I didn’t feel great spending hours sitting at a table. If I had to do it again, I would definitely take it over the summer when I have more time. I’ve seen some data that those who take it in August tend to do the best on the MCAT.
Lastly, reach out to friends to help with edits. The personal statement is a very important piece of your application. I advise that you have at least two other people to take a look and give good feedback. I felt that the personal statement is essentially a portrait of who you are, and it is very important you are conveying your strengths the best way you can. I was lucky to have friends to give me feedback. I would make sure you are not getting too many opinions, though, because that will also dilute your essay and your message.
Is there anything you now know that you wish you had known when you were preparing for medical school?
I wish that I took more chances in college. As a college premed, I felt like I was restricted from taking risks. I spent my summers doing basic science research, and I spent most of my academics on science classes. I wish that someone told me it was ok to explore other things while in school. I always felt the sense that medical school wanted a certain type of students and that’s the only picture I had in mind. If I knew what I know now back then, I would have taken a chance and be adventurous in the interests I explored in summer or the school year. I now realize that is exactly what medical schools are looking for.
This interview has been edited slightly for clarity.