An Agent for Change
Aspiring neurosurgeon looks to diversify medicine
The neurosurgery lab at UC Davis Medical School is a far cry from Enugu State in southeastern Nigeria, where medical school student and Cal State East Bay alumna Lucy Ogbu-Nwobodo once learned to read, bent over a book late at night, lit only by the light of a kerosene lamp.
And while the backdrop may have changed, the tenacity with which Ogbu-Nwobodo throws herself into learning and challenges hasn’t.
Since first setting foot on the Cal State East Bay campus in 2002, Ogbu-Nwobodo, 30, has made a name for herself both locally and nationally as a thought leader and proponent of bringing diversity to the medical field, and opening opportunities for students of all backgrounds.
She was recently asked to speak at CSUEB’s Make a Difference week and inspired all in attendance, says Andrea Wells, senior coordinator for the CSUEB Center for Community Engagement.
“Lucy is a change agent in whatever community she’s a part of,” Wells says. “She’s shown that she has the tenacity and grit to not only get into Cal State East Bay despite her challenges, but excel in medical school and in her field. I think that really resonates with students.”
But it hasn’t been easy.
As a child growing up in Nigeria, Ogbu-Nwobodo found herself affected by the struggles of those around her: Villagers sick with dysentery or malaria, young and old ravaged by what she now knows are curable diseases.
Even though she’d help where she could, bringing water to those in need or trying to provide comfort, she felt a sense of hopelessness.
“As a kid, I was a really sensitive child,” Ogbu-Nwobodo says. “I was very intuitive and emotional. I felt things a lot and what really stuck with me was that I wanted to find a way to have some type of impact.”
She said her parents pushed her to dream big and do well in school, even though dreams of their daughter becoming a doctor in the United States weren’t necessarily on their radar.
“I think of my dad and I wonder, could he have ever dreamt this big for me?” Ogbu-Nwobodo says. “He was a big champion for education, he taught me how to read and he saw a world that was much bigger than our village, but I don’t know if he could have imagined how actually big it was.”
At age 11, Ogbu-Nwobodo was sent by her parents to live in Oakland with extended family. And while her new living situation turned out to be far from idyllic, it was the catalyst for her life’s work of becoming a doctor and helping other students of color succeed.
Pushing for Success
After graduating from high school at age 15, Ogbu-Nwobodo began applying for universities all over the country. She wanted to study at the best of the best. But what she didn’t realize at the time was that her immigration papers had expired and she was undocumented, living in the United States without legal status.
“I didn’t have papers, so even though I was the valedictorian and the youngest person to graduate from my high school, all these fancy schools wouldn’t take me,” she says. But she was undeterred.
After hearing about an open-house event at then-Cal State Hayward, Ogbu-Nwobodo hopped on a bus (she still remembers it was Route 92) and rode up the hill to campus. She walked up to the first woman she saw, handed over her high school transcripts and asked would this woman please help her dream of going to college happen.
That day, she left with an acceptance letter to the university and a nine-digit student ID number, most of which she still remembers 15 years later.
“I had to find an option and I found it at Hayward,” Ogbu-Nwobodo says.
Buoyed by the community of support she found at Cal State, Ogbu-Nwobodo completed her undergraduate degree in Biological Science with an emphasis on Neurobiology and Physiology. She continued and earned her master’s in Biology with a Neuroscience Concentration from CSUEB in 2011 and applied for medical school at UC Davis shortly thereafter.
Wells says dozens of staff and faculty at CSUEB still remember Ogbu-Nwobodo and showed up to hear her speak, a testament to the impact she had on them as well.
“When I started mentioning her name to people, I uncovered a network of people who care about her and have been following her story and success,” Wells says. “She’s just an incredible human being.”
Even while she was studying and working toward becoming a doctor, Ogbu-Nwobodo still made time to apply for and receive countless scholarships and grants, and she always looked for ways to give back.
Before she was even a medical student, Ogbu-Nwobodo started an Operating Room Experiences program at Highland Hospital in Oakland, which allows undergraduates to get hands-on surgical experience. She volunteered in emergency rooms and worked with community partners and physicians to bring the flu vaccine to low-income communities throughout the area.
In 2016, she was selected as one of only three students at UC Davis School of Medicine for a prestigious National Institute of Health fellowship, which she is currently serving in Davis. Thanks to the grant, she’s able to work with the Department of Neurosurgery at the university in investigating therapeutic strategies for improving cognitive function for patients with epilepsy. And, she’s working toward completing an additional master’s in Clinical Research.
The fellowship has delayed her graduation a year, but with at least seven more years of residency ahead of her, Ogbu-Nwobodo says it’s worth it.
Ogbu-Nwobodo, who is now a U.S. citizen, says that along with earning her degree, she’s determined to change the face of medical school.
As someone who didn’t even receive basic medical care until she was 25, she says she’s realized that there’s a lot of young people who may not even know about careers in medicine, let alone think it’s a possibility for their futures.
“We need to create a pipeline that extends beyond the undergraduate level to show young people of color that there’s actually a possibility for someone who looks like you to be a doctor,” she says. “It’s hard to aspire to what you’ve never seen.”
Ogbu-Nwobodo regularly mentors young pre-medical and medical students about everything from filling out their applications to what to wear to an interview. She works with a Sacramento-based program called Yes2College to get students as young as sixth grade interested in pursuing medicine and says she’s constantly saying “yes” herself to people who seek her advice.
“Going to medical school is really daunting for anybody, but when you come from a particular background, it can be really hard to make yourself stand out,” she says.
Ten years from now, maybe sooner, Ogbu-Nwobodo is hopeful she’ll be serving the most underprivileged, honoring her journey and theirs.
“One day I will be the person to open someone else’s brain,” she says. “To be able to be that person, it’s surreal, it’s humbling and it’s very inspiring. But it’s also my calling — to serve the forgotten ones, the voiceless ones, the people who society doesn’t even realize are there.”
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