Chasing a dream

Chasing a dream

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Mary Ileso traveled 5,000 miles to pursue her dream of a medical degree

For Mary Ileso, there was never a "Plan B" for her medical career.

“Rowan was the only school I applied to, so I’m glad they accepted me,” she says now with a laugh. “It was a very risky move, I know.”

Laughter comes easily for the 32-year old graduate of the Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine (RowanSOM). Raised in Lagos, Nigeria, she left that former capital city at the age of 15, traveling to the United States to join her mother who had made the move two years earlier as a way to provide Ileso and her brother with a better education in America.

“When I got here, I saw all of these opportunities, all of these resources that weren’t available in Nigeria,” Ileso says. “So, I just hopped on and did the best I could in school. I realized that my dreams could finally come to fruition.”

Those dreams began early in Ileso’s life. She says she always knew she wanted to be a doctor even as a very young child.

“Growing up in Nigeria, I would notice people were sick, and some of them would die of illness,” she explains. “I don’t know how, but in my little brain at the time, I thought ‘Well, this looks like something that should be treatable or preventable.’ That always resonated in me and, from then, I knew I wanted to be a doctor.”

That dream was encouraged and reinforced by her father.

“My dad would tell me, ‘You are going to medical school in America,’ even though I really didn’t fully understand what that meant,” she says, the recollection eliciting another bit of laughter.

A mother’s gift

In America, determination, sacrifice and love were among the gifts Ileso’s mother bestowed. To provide for her children’s education, her mother worked a full-time job, a part-time job and added a third job cleaning houses. Ileso sometimes helped.

For her part, Ileso worked hard to fulfill her mother’s legacy by first earning an undergraduate degree in Biological Sciences from Rutgers University and then a master’s degree in Biomedical Sciences from the Rowan University Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (RowanGSBS). While in graduate school, Ileso began working in her field. She planned to delay attending medical school so she could continue working and allow her mother, who was approaching 65, to consider retirement.

Unfortunately, her mother never got to see Ileso enroll in RowanSOM. She passed away suddenly in 2012, the same year that Ileso finished her master’s degree. It was also the same year that the man who would eventually become Ileso’s husband arrived in the United States from Nigeria.

“My mom didn’t get to meet Amos before she died, but I think heaven sent him to me because my life had, up to then, revolved around my mom,” Ileso says. “He reminds me of her in so many ways.”

Why RowanSOM?

In college, Ileso participated in ODASIS (Office for Diversity and Academic Success in the Sciences), a program that helped encourage minority students to pursue careers in science and health care. Her desire to attend RowanSOM was immediate.

“I came here on a trip with Rutgers students,” she recalls. “Although it was years ago, I remember thinking it was a beautiful campus and, as soon as I walked through the doors of the Academic Center, it just felt right. Everyone was so nice and I just loved the atmosphere and the positive vibe I got.

“And then we started to hear about the osteopathic principles and that really hit home with me because I knew that the answer to the health care issues I saw in Nigeria was a holistic approach to medicine.”

Because Ileso was so certain of her choice, RowanSOM was the only medical school she applied to.

Giving back 

“America gave me an opportunity and a way to make my dreams come true,” Ileso says. “I’ve had so many good experiences, from schools to the friends I met, to the opportunities to expand my horizons. I really appreciate that about this country and I wanted to give back somehow, so I joined the military and applied to medical school.”

Joining the U.S. Air Force was a dream Ileso had harbored since high school. Although she admits to being a little hesitant to share that dream with her husband, she happily notes that Amos was fully supportive of her decision to enlist.

Unfortunately, her military scholarship didn’t cover her first year of medical school because Ileso didn’t submit her application in time. She lightly recalls that was because there was “a little bit of back and forth” in her life in the year before entering RowanSOM. Most people would likely characterize it as somewhat more than “a little bit.”  

Shortly before entering medical school, Ileso gave birth to the couple’s first child, Joanna.

At the time, the couple were living in Newark where Amos worked. They planned for Amos to remain in Newark and Joanna and Ileso would move to the Stratford area. While they settled into medical school life, Amos would continue in his job while looking for another employment opportunity in South Jersey. 

The best laid plans

Most first-year students struggle to find enough hours in the day to keep up with the academic rigors of medical school. Because there are only 24 hours in a day, Ileso’s schedule was nearly impossible. She began each day with getting the 11-month-old Joanna ready for daycare. After dropping her off, Ileso would rush to campus for classes, picking Joanna up afterwards. At home, Ileso usually didn’t even begin to study until late at night, after her daughter was asleep. 

“But by then I was usually too exhausted to read very long, and the next day I was back to the same schedule,” she recalls. “I have to say that God really pulled me through. He took my little efforts and just multiplied them.”

Still, within a few months, Ileso had to ask Amos to come up with his own ‘Plan B,’ that is to give up his job in Newark and join her in South Jersey. He did – a testament, Ileso says to how “awesome” he is.

Fulfilling a dream…and a commitment

At the end of their third year of medical school, osteopathic students must pass the second of three examinations administered by the National Board of Osteopathic Medical Examiners to maintain their eligibility for their medical license. Additionally, military students, like Ileso, are required to complete at least one 30-day active military duty clinical rotation.

“My son Joel was born right before I took the boards, and two weeks later, I left for my active duty rotation in California. I don’t advise that schedule for anyone,” she adds with a bemused laugh at the wonderment of having actually done so herself.

While in California, she planned to ship breast milk back to Amos for baby Joel. Once again, things didn’t quite go according to plan when the initial shipment was returned to her for failing to include a warning label about the dry ice that was keeping the contents frozen for the cross country journey. Despite the stress of adjusting to military duty and being 3,000 miles from her family and newborn son, Ileso was able to rescue the package and get it to Amos and Joel with the contents nearly intact.  

Today, Ileso and her family are at the threshold of her dream realized and eagerly anticipate the next phase of their life adventure. At the RowanSOM Commencement Ceremony, Ileso will receive her medical degree and be officially be commissioned a Captain in the U.S. Air Force.

Following Commencement, the family will move to Florida where Ileso will begin a three-year Family Medicine residency at Eglin Air Force Base. After completing her residency, she will continue to serve her adopted country with three years of active military duty followed by three years of reserve duty.

Ileso credits her faith in helping her overcome the many challenges she has faced – growing up in Nigeria, moving to a new country as a teenager, her mother’s unexpected passing and simultaneously juggling medical school, motherhood and military service.

“My faith is a huge part of my life. I would not have done any of this if not for the strength God gave me.”