Matching—and living—the mission

Matching—and living—the mission

Born and raised in Camden, twins Samantha and Susana Collazo are the first city residents to earn medical degrees from CMSRU
“We had mentors who pushed us to be physicians. We had constant reminders from people telling us we could do it…even from as far back as elementary school,” says Samantha Collazo. Samantha and her sister, Susana, are graduating from CMSRU.

Samantha and Susana Collazo followed their hearts. And that made all the difference.

“We had our hearts set on going back to Camden and becoming doctors there,” says Samantha. “Camden was our first choice.”

“Cooper Medical School of Rowan University meets our mission to serve the underserved and to contribute to diversity in healthcare,” adds Susana. “We liked how community service was part of the curriculum.”

As they prepare to become the first Camden residents to earn medical degrees from CMSRU, the identical twin sisters can’t stop talking about how love—of medicine, of family, of mentors, of service, of their city, of each other—led them to this seminal, remarkable moment in their lives.

Learn more about Samantha and Susana's journey to becoming physicians here.

“We had mentors who pushed us to be physicians. We had constant reminders from people telling us we could do it…even from as far back as elementary school,” says Samantha.

“I truly think we wouldn’t have been able to this without our support system,” Susana says.

Those supporters—more than 25 beaming family members, friends, and CMSRU faculty members and mentors—were on hand on Friday, May 11, at 10 a.m., when the sisters were among 73 students to graduate during CMSRU’s third annual Commencement ceremony on the University Green at Rowan’s main campus in Glassboro.

‘They never showed any doubt in us’

Their journey is an extraordinary story of determination, hard work, and devotion.

The youngest of six children born to loving parents who left high school due to family responsibilities, the twins grew up in a two-bedroom house for a family of eight in the Cramer Hill section of Camden. Their parents—a mechanic and a custodian--expected them to work hard in their studies and to excel academically at Harry C. Sharp Elementary School, Veterans Memorial Middle School and Charles E. Brimm Medical Arts High School, a prestigious Camden magnet school for students with an interest in health careers.

“Our parents always said, ‘We don’t want you to bring home anything less than an ‘A,’” says Samantha. “It was good discipline. They pushed us to succeed.”

“They just never gave up on us,” Susana adds. “They never showed any doubt in us. They always showed unconditional love.”

Expectations also were high from their teachers in the Camden school district, they say.

“We had great teachers,” says Samantha, who is older by five minutes. “We wouldn’t change where we went to school. Our Camden public school education helped us tremendously.”

Brimm genetics teacher Steven Fine got them thinking—seriously thinking—about medical school. Samantha and Susana had aced a notoriously difficult exam—two points separated their scores—and, when Fine returned their graded tests, he wrote “Dr.” before each of their names.

“I did it to inspire them,” says Fine. “Coming through the Camden school district, a lot of our students don’t feel they can achieve that. But Samantha and Susana didn’t really need me to do that. Even at that young age, they had goals set for themselves. There’s something special about them—about their focus and their commitment.”

Fine’s vote of confidence left a mark on the sisters, one they still feel to this day.

“It was the first time someone called me ‘Dr. Collazo,’” says Samantha. “And I was in 10th grade.”

Attending PULSE

Staying together for college made sense to them, so they attended Rutgers University-New Brunswick, earning bachelor’s degrees—and identical grade point averages—in exercise science and sport studies. At that time in their lives, they say, they wanted to leave Camden and immerse themselves in their studies. Their four years included studying abroad in Kenya.

“We had spent so much time in the city. We needed to get away,” says Susana.

Then, they heard that CMSRU—the first M.D.-granting medical school in South Jersey and the first one in the state in more than 35 years—was rising in Camden.

An adviser with Rutgers’ Office for Diversity and Academic Success in the Sciences program who was familiar with CMSRU told them about the medical school and about PULSE (Premedical Urban Leaders Summer Enrichment), a summer biomedical science, clinical and service learning experience for college students. The highly selective program was designed to provide students with an understanding of what medical school is like.

With Samantha and Susana still sitting in his office, he called Jocelyn Mitchell-Williams, CMSRU’s associate dean for multicultural and community affairs.

“Dr. Mitchell-Williams said she was looking for PULSE students similar to us,” says Samantha.

The sisters were accepted into the program, which was operational even before CMSRU opened. Though they were academically gifted in math and science and very driven, CMSRU leaders knew Samantha and Susana would need a solid support system to achieve their goal of becoming physicians, Mitchell-Williams recalls.

The first step toward that was the rigorous summer program, where they learned about medicine and also developed strong bonds with CMSRU faculty members.

Members of CMRSU's third class

“We knew they had what it would take to succeed if they had the right support,” says Mitchell-Williams. “For PULSE, they worked hard and studied in the middle of summer. They were very engaged. It was very clear to us that they were willing to do whatever it took to achieve their dreams.”

Faculty at CMSRU kept in close contact with the young women and, as they graduated from Rutgers, the PULSE II program was created specifically for them, Mitchell-Williams says.

“We created it and built it around these two students to nourish them,” says Mitchell-Williams. “We knew we had to create a program to keep them in the pipeline. So we established an anatomy-based program.”

PULSE “made it obvious to Sam and I that CMSRU was where we wanted to be,” says Susana. “The program gave us that confidence that we were capable of being medical school students.”

Together, the sisters, who took the MCATs twice—“It was the hardest test I’ve ever taken,” Susana says-- applied for early decision to attend CMSRU. In fall of 2014, they were admitted to the medical school’s third class.

It helped, they say, that they were familiar with CMSRU through PULSE. From Dean Annette Reboli on down, CMSRU faculty members have an open door policy for all medical school students that truly makes a difference, Samantha and Susana agree.

“We were able to just walk into any faculty members’ offices,” says Susana. “We were in such a small world. When you’re at smaller schools, you have the chance to have close relationships with faculty.”

The medical school’s approach of using active-style learning within a group setting also was appealing.

“Most medical schools we were exposed to use lecture-based learning,” Samantha says. “We knew we learned well in groups. CMSRU was doing things in the curriculum that other medical schools were not doing or were just starting to do.”

Community outreach

Ultimately, they say, it was the medical school’s mission to serve Camden residents that made applying to CMSRU the perfect choice. The sisters took that mission to heart. While CMSRU students are required to complete 40 hours of community service, they easily surpassed 100.

Together, they co-founded a CMSRU service site for LUCY (Lifting Up Camden’s Youth), an outreach program targeting at-risk youth from Camden to provide a safe space for teens to develop into compassionate and socially responsible adults.

“LUCY was in existence, but Susana and I established a relationship between LUCY and CMSRU,” says Samantha. “We spent a lot of hours with that program. There are so many brilliant kids. They just need that push. They’re in denial that they could become doctors. That’s how we were at that age.”

The sisters also taught English as a second language to native speakers of Spanish and Russian at the Center for Family Services, worked on blood drives and organized brown bag meals for Camden residents for the American Red Cross, and led fitness sessions with local youth through Steve’s Heart of Camden.

Additionally, they regularly return to Brimm, where they coordinate presentations and activities that expose students in their senior year to the multiple healthcare career paths. That service allows them to work once again with Fine.

“I’m most proud of them for their involvement,” says Fine. “They’ve been immensely involved and they’re very devoted to this community.”

Samantha and Susana say being close to family while attending medical school was tremendously beneficial.

“They cooked. They cleaned. They helped us get through,” says Samantha. “We have a very strong family bond.”

“We felt like this was a moment in time where we needed the most support,” notes Susana, who waxes poetic about her mother’s authentic Puerto Rican cooking, especially her homemade sofrito. “You can buy it, but it’s nothing like hers. It’s the love—the motherly love—that she puts into it.”

Residencies in obstetrics, pediatrics

Fittingly, the sisters, who have pushed each other to work hard and excel in their studies their entire lives, are headed into residencies with a true family focus. In a move that is uncommon for siblings, they applied for a “couples match” and landed residencies together at Atlantic Health System in Morristown.

There, Samantha will begin a residency in obstetrics and gynecology, while Susana will begin her residency in pediatrics. Remarkably, each predicted their specialty to the other.

“I was 100 percent sure about obstetrics and gynecology by the end of my third year. Susana told me I was going to love it. I told her pediatrics was for her,” says Samantha, adding that obstetrics “embodies everything I am and want to be in a physician. I love the patient continuity. I like being there at times of joy. In this field, you get to watch a family grow.”

“We went through medical school unsure if we would be in the same specialty. It has turned out perfectly. She’s going to hand those babies right over,” laughs Susana, who likens being a pediatrician to being a family doctor in the sense that you’re treating a child, but educating a family.

“You have to do all of the teaching for the parents, also. A visit to the pediatrician is always a family event,” says Susana, who frequently volunteers to hold and rock babies born to drug-addicted mothers.

The sisters’ skills as bilingual communicators and care givers are outstanding, says Mitchell-Williams. They are, she adds, extraordinary assets to CMSRU and to Camden and will embody the medical school’s mission as they serve urban communities in the future.

“Our goal from the beginning was not to be just another beautiful new building in the City of Camden,” Mitchell-Williams says. “We wanted to be a place where community members could one day aspire to attend medical school.

 “Often, medical schools are looking at candidates based just on their MCAT numbers. They really miss the boat a lot of times. They miss the people who are their ‘mission match.’

“I’m just so proud of Samantha and Susana,” she continues. “They took advantage of everything we had to offer. I love them like they’re my own. And I’m going to call on them to come back.”

Very often, Susana says, “Camden is more known for negative things. It makes me happy that it’s being known for something positive. It makes us very proud that the medical school is making a name for itself.”

“We went to a medical school,” adds Samantha, “that was made for us.”