Financing a Dream: how do you pay for medical school?

Before I start, I want to say happy birthday to my good friend Tricia over at triciatallen. She deserves all sorts of wonderful today and I hope she gets it!

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Getting accepted into medical school is great. I was ecstatic for the first four hours after I got my confirmation email and then reality began to set in. Reality being the dramatic 7 figure tuition costs – money I had never seen (except on TV) let alone conceived of any one person having in their bank account all at once. Hello, Reality.

Which set me on the most hectic, exhilarating and distressing summer of my life thus far. Finding lots of cash in a few short months was about to be a roller coaster ride.

(Just to say that scholarships are totally an option, if you can successfully grab one. I couldn’t so. . .)


My super-awesome team of money-baggers comprised myself, my mother and my aunt (who’s practically a second mother to me). We spent July running around Montego Bay visiting every single loan institution in the city. Scotia Bank, NCB, even the Credit Union all demanded the same thing: collateral.

What is this collateral of which you speak? Collateral means having to prove that you have either (A) the exact amount of money you want to borrow already stashed in an account somewhere or (B) assets equivalent to the value of the loan you’re requesting.


I, a novice in this realm of grown-up financial navigation, was completely flabbergasted. Why on earth, I wondered incredulously, would you need to borrow the money if you already had it? I continued to vent my ire at banks and their ilk as we stalked the streets between buildings. I came close to throwing in the towel.

One friendly raincloud (you’ll see why I call it that later) that kept us company in this desert of “Please lend me – No” was the Student Loan Bureau, a private organisation semi-funded by the government but mostly running on loan reimbursements. But the SLB would not cover tuition costs that were not government sponsored.


Government sponsored? The UWI publishes two lists of tuition costs annually. One for students from contributing countries whose governments usually pay 80% of tuition costs (a full list can be found here) and one for foreign nationals (meaning everyone else).

Even though Jamaica is one of the contributors to the UWI our government has by and large squandered all our money so that they only sponsor some students, especially in the Faculty of Medicine where tuition costs are roughly twice everyone else’s. To offset the burden, the Faculty in my time offered 50% bursaries to a good many students. This is the offer I had received.

My options? Wait a year and receive government sponsorship when I entered the next class. Find a way to come up with 1.5M or find a way to get that 80% Government sponsorship. The first wasn’t an option. And when I had exhausted the second, I set my sights on the third.


My mother and I made the trip to Kingston (a trip I hadn’t made since I was about six) for an appointment with the Dean of Medicine. We questioned, he explained. We petitioned, he hesitated. We begged, and he offered a possible solution. I leaped . . .

. . . and landed in the pioneering MBBS cohort at the Western Jamaica Campus, a solution that worked out well on all fronts. At home, I wouldn’t need to pay pesky hall fees and I managed to receive the 80% sponsorship which let me approach the Student Loan Bureau (who were only too glad to sink their claws into me).

But selling my soul to the devil (a devil with 9% interest rates and a gorgeous moratorium period) is whole other story. Student loans never rain but they pour.

A little less preachy and a little more practical

Our guest speaker at the 2013 ChanSea Hall Dinner was Kenrese Young, motivational speaker and health and lifestyle coach. She spent her allotted time preaching to our young, impressionable minds about the importance of dreaming big and not letting anyone tell you “You can’t”.

Her most shining example of reaching for the stars despite the odds was her personal story of quitting her comfy job at a communications company (after years of making money) to become a motivational speaker. She extolled the virtues of doing what you love.

All of which rubbed me the wrong way.

I think it’s wholly impractical to be telling a roomful of university students to switch majors just so they can do what they love. This economic climate and this job market are too unstable to be telling anyone to dream big and ignore reality. Because she never once mentioned any kind of practical advice about getting a job after university, even though more than 75% of our graduates will remain unemployed after they graduate with a “sensible” degree. Even medical interns – a post that used to be guaranteed once you left university – are having a hard time finding jobs.

Her speech was full of catchy phrases like “Dream big!”, “Don’t let anyone bring you down!” and “Work hard!” but I think in the midst of all the hype, she failed to bring across just how hard you have to work. And that sometimes hard work alone will still not cut it. There is luck and knowing the right people and getting the right opportunity – which, statistically speaking, everyone will not get.

She didn’t tell them that the world is unfair.

Telling lies to the young is wrong
Proving to them that lies are true is wrong

Yevgeny Yevtushenko

Her own story isn’t an ideal example either. We don’t all come from the same background or get the same chances. She had built herself a stable, practical career out of university degrees that she probably didn’t love studying for in the first place. But they made her financially secure enough to be able to quit her job and jump into a profession that is iffy at best. Could she have done that – would she have wanted to do that as a fledgling university graduate with loans to pay off and rent overdue? I doubt it.

She was a complete one-eighty from our guest speaker last year who had told us straight up about the raw deal we’d be facing as university graduates in a global society where graduates are a dime a dozen. He told us to be trailblazers, yes, but when he told us how hard blazing the trail would be he didn’t pull any punches. He didn’t sugar-coat our future because the future shouldn’t be sugar-coated, or viewed through rose-coloured lenses. Times is hard and they’re only getting harder. How many of our young people are unemployed? Across the world? How many businesses have failed in the last few years?

It is not from lack of passion that these pursuits have withered. What our young people lack is direction, not drive. We are so eager to make our mark on the world but no one’s there to help us navigate the treacherous waters. And today’s world is a much harsher one than the world of generations past. Prices are going up, including the price of mistakes, and we are struggling to find our feet in an ever-shifting economy, an ever-changing society. The kind of advice we need is not going to be found in fortune cookie fold-outs, can’t be given in clichés or anecdotes about one-in-a-million chances.

Be careful with whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it.
Advice is like a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it, like fishing the past out of the garbage disposal and recycling it for more than it’s worth.

Mary Schmich/Baz Luhrmann

But it is too easy to talk about what we don’t need. We know the wrong way all too well. The hard part is figuring out what we do need, and which way is the right way, and we should be busy trying to work on that. So far all we’ve got is trial and error and we don’t know the answers to any of the questions.

If anyone does, please write.


As far as commencement speeches go The Sunscreen Song is still my favourite, but This is Water runs a pretty close second.

Look who’s cooking now

I don’t cook. I’ve never been good at it, never had to be good at it really. All those years my friends were learning to cook I spent with my nose in some book after being shooed out of the kitchen. I wasn’t even allowed to boil water (until the sixth grade), and knives were sacred, untouchable objects. Then later, when my mother and grandmother realized un-domestic I was becoming, they tried to salvage the situation. But it was too late. I was already quite comfortable not cooking, thankyouverymuch, and had no inclination to get oil burns or slice myself by accident or any other horrible thing than can go wrong while one is engaged in this cooking business.

So when I left home in September, I had made up my mind to survive the next two years on macaroni and cheese and sandwhiches. My aunt didn’t bother to hide her amusement at my determination, but I was unfazed! Me, cook? Never! I have since come to realize that this is exactly the kind of statement fate finds supremely amusing.

It started with rice. Innocent enough. I’d cooked rice before, no sweat. Besides, it’s just plain rice. That’s not even real cooking. Then I was boiling dumplings. That required mixing flour and water with some degree of skill. I should have caught the warning signs but I was too excited by the prospect of trying something new to notice that I was slowly getting closer to what might be construed as domesticity.

Before I knew it, there I was cooking country style chicken and rice and peas and serving my so-called determination on a plate (with vegetables on the side). Just this weekend I made curry chicken, and it was good. I never thought it would come to this, that I would willingly spend hours slaving in a hot kitchen over a pot that I hoped would turn out well. This is what living away from home means: you end up doing things.

On the bright side, I didn’t actually cook any of them from scratch.

a little less tequila parties, a little more tin food

For months now I’ve been dying to rant about my university experience. I was frustrated that it didn’t live up to any of my expectations. But recent revelations have conspired to teach me that your university experience is only exactly what you make of it.

So while I could complain about being denied all the career-broadening opportunities that my peers from other faculties seem to have, I’d rather focus on the benefits I manage to accrue despite being stuck in this straight jacket of a programme. And I’ve adopted somewhat of a “the grass is always greener. . . ” attitude.

For instance, despite feeling like medicine gives me no time for anything else, I’ve attended the Company Dance Theatre’s season, two awards ceremonies (one in my faculty, the other in the Faculty of Humanities) and regular dance classes almost every Saturday. All this and more in less than three months of being on campus. I actually have a. . . life.

The fact is, campus life will always be teeming with activities and opportunities. Right now the weekly party is happening at the Student’s Union. I still haven’t been to that. Even though being stuck on the ward or on the road all day means I’ll miss some things, it doesn’t mean I’ll miss everything. And it’s up to me to find out what I do have time for instead of crying about all the things I don’t.

Which actually sounds very grown up of me. Good job, university.

{fiction} The Road Not Taken

“Come on,” he cajoles, “be a mensch.”

I hesitate for a moment. Looking beyond the young man standing in front of me, I spot his friends walking away. Probably still talking about extra-terrestrials and string theory. I wonder, why me.

“Do I know you?” I ask politely, but firmly.

“Nope, I’m just making conversation. Was I creepy?”

“A bit, yeah.” 

I smile. “Sure.”

I follow the three guys, barely out of their teens, back through the campus gates into one of several waiting taxis.

“We’re bored, so we’re just walking around,” he tells me without my asking. “We might end up at this Arab place, learn some Arabian culture.”

“Fascinating,” I reply. I really mean it. 

The taxi makes some twists and turns that are foreign to me, but then everything is foreign to me in this new city that is not the city of my birth but a city that I must reside in and get used to and perhaps one day grow to like. But that day is not today.

I begin to realize several things almost at once.

The streets outside the taxi window are unfamiliar. I do not recall the taxi having a red plate. The driver and the front seat passenger – one of the three young men I have so blithely followed – are having a whispered conversation. I am in the middle in the back, between the young man who told me to be a mensch and the one who mentioned String Theory. The windows are wound up. The radio is not playing. The driver is slowing down, and I do not see an Arabian place in sight. I do not see much of anything because I am being pushed down into the lap of the mensch who holds my wrists with a grip of steel while String Theory hauls my ankles onto the seat so he can control my legs despite my fierce, panicked struggling.

I yank one ankle free to kick him in the face and am rewarded by the mensch pressing his elbow into my throat. String Theory begins to force my thighs apart. My throat burns while my eyes sting with tears. Desperately I wonder, why me.

I am staring at the man who wants me to be a mensch.

“That sounds great,” I hear myself say. “But maybe some other time. I’ve got plans tonight.”

He looks disappointed, but brushes off my rejection with a terse “Whatever.”

We walk away. I am flattered, and strangely relieved.

This is what happens when you let me go to a Philosophy lecture

This one is a wall of text, guys. Apologies in advance, unless (like me) you like words. In which case, you’re welcome. 

I was a third year medical student pretending to be a first year Literature major, sitting beside a final year Philosophy major from Germany.

It was the best day of my life. 

Some of my classmates are using the four weeks’ holiday we’ve been granted to rest and reflect. Some have been using to to prepare for the annual third year production, Smoker. Some have been using it to prepare for their upcoming clinical rotation.

Today, I used it to sit in on lectures in the Faculty of Humanities and Education. And it was amazing. My ardent admiration for Literature, notwithstanding (Austen fans, see what I did there?), today I discovered the dearth of possibilities that lay open to most other university students (with the possible exception of students from the Faculty of Law): the almost limitless variety  of classes and courses that can wind up creating a one-of-a-kind bespoke first degree, and not just the one-size-fits-all paper that most students leave university toting.

I am absolutely green with envy at the students in Humanities and the Social Sciences who are restricted in the course decisions only by credit allowances. UWI is an all-you-can-eat buffet, and medical students are on a water-and-lettuce-leaf diet. Everyone else is given a plate and told to fill it as much as possible. So many of them waste so much of their plates, just leaving the space empty, when they could have topped it up with the study of languages, culture, psychology, gender, literature. Or is the lettuce leaf just greener on that side of life?

I want to rail against the university for the vacuum they’ve given us to study in, for how limited our options for real enlightenment are. These foundation courses that are meant to give students the benefit of a multi-faculty education are compulsory, true. But they have a pass mark of 40%. They only require 4/10 of the effort. They only need you to know 4/10 of the concepts and information that are being rigorously dissected by some other student doing some other major in some other faculty.

I am upset that we are allowed, encouraged even, to study one subject exclusively. Is a liberal education the opposite of this? Where can I get one of those?

I think the well-rounded university graduate is a myth. Called into being by some employer who wants a business grad with a working knowledge of computers and human behaviour.

The issue at heart is the cycle of invalidity: the undergrad freshman wants to make money when he/she graduates, the university needs marketable graduates to maintain its credibility, and of course society stigmatizes the liberal arts graduate as un-properly-educated and unqualified.

When will we recognize the relevance of every subject? When will we stop subjugating one discipline for the veneration of some other? (Philosophy-for-Science, I’m looking at you). In short, when will universities, as social institutions, create an environment that is suitable for developing the cornucopia of human minds it professes to cater to, instead of trying to jam every peg – square and otherwise – into one round hole?

Perhaps when philosophers stop teaching philosophy and start leading governments. Perhaps when doctors stop treating bodies and start healing psyches. Perhaps when students stop being simple mind-jugs waiting to be filled and start being critical leaders of social change.

Most likely I’m asking for too much, and much too soon.

Opining medical school (UWI Class of 2015)

The western arm of UWI is going on four years now, and doing fairly well. The MB;BS programme (of which I am a proud pioneer) is only two years old, and still working the kinks out. But I’m still so much more attached to this little slice of UWI than I could ever be to the main campus at Mona and it’s not just because here I’m one of 25 rather than one of 300+.

Yes, my batch is huge, and while I rep 2KMillion all the way, I am secretly (and guiltily) glad that I don’t have to fight for survival with 300-odd prospective doctors who are at least 100 times more motivated than I am. We at the Mobay campus are alternately reassured and reminded that we are all one class, a lack of distinction which includes being a part of Mona’s goings on, and also ‘not being special’. I could go on about how innately unrealistic that expectation/affirmation is, but today I’m just going to complain about being eventually thrust into the wading pool of piranhas that is medical school in Mona.

Come September, 2K15 will finally be ‘one class’ when all 300+ of us get shunted around on Junior Clerkship clinical rotations, and this prospect is daunting. It’s not just the idea of (finally) leaving home, or of being yet another clueless face attached to a stethoscope, or of having to fight tooth and nail to make sure I excel among the hordes; maybe it’s a composite of all those and more, but I am deeply perturbed.

I will have to trade in my beaches and trees for cold hospitals and concrete and leave my close-knit campus to disappear into sprawling obscurity, the mosaic that is UWI: my place to shine. And the mere thought is intolerable.

This is where I get to go to school, y'all.


Okay, I may be overreacting a little, but I really, really, really don’t want to leave.

{29} Exams, what exams?

Exams are around the corner, and my Facebook feed is buzzing with frustrated status updates and calls to religion. The academic world is stressed and it’s not just the students. Lecturers are cramming in last minute tutorials, tutors are trying to get the thickest of skulls to understand the most complicated concepts.

And me? I’m blogging in class one week before my first exam.

Pictured here: model student.

Exams should come labeled like the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I’m talking FDA mandated black box style warnings here because, frankly, life-threatening side effects are likely to result from the misuse of this drug.

A good healthy dose of panic is all well and good, but in the long run all it guarantees you is hypertensive heart failure. And possibly tin foil hats.

I’m guilty of the same things as everyone else (wittily expounded on here in this article from Cracked) but I like to think that as a professional procrastinator stress won’t kick my butt (too badly).

In the past I’ve done nothing differently when exams got closer. I’d been looking at past questions and reviewing my notes from the year started. And those exams didn’t ask you to remember much anyway.

Medical school is an entirely different kettle of fish. I do nothing for the first half of the semester and then suddenly wake up a month before the exams to a wonderland of gargantuan titles, obscure diseases and complex pharmacology. Joy.

Like this girl. Except with less LSD.

But I’m still not stressing (much). I have to completely rearrange my schedule, rethink my study strategies (invent study strategies, more like) and really really try not to fail this.

It’s a working progress and we’ll see the results in about two months. Crossing my fingers.


P.S. I owe Project 52 and entry from last week! I’m behind on everything but I’ll get to it soon.

{25} I must be insane

Whoever heard of someone reading for a medical degree and doing a cartload of extra-curriculars? That don’t give you extra credit.

In addition to my not insubstantial class load (classes 8-12 every morning; evening tutorials from 4 to 8, 3 times a week; lab exercises; study time; rescheduled classes), I’ve seen it fit to take up:

Dance club presidency
Directorial position in Rotaract Club
I had initially offered to be secretary of the Writer’s Club, but had to withdraw when I realized I was completely off my rocker.
Secretarial positions both in class and for the faculty’s outreach club (though to be honest I was appointed in these roles)

This is, of course, in addition to my regular dance classes outside of school. And I’ve volunteered for yet another production for my aunt’s church just because I love and dearly missed the choreographer. (Wonderful woman. Yells a lot. Throws shoes.)

I’ve already forfeited eating time to get more work in, but I’m not sure I can give up the sleeping so easily. While it may be considered attractive to be stick-thin, bags under your eyes are never fashionable. (She says at 1a.m. instead of sleeping).

I dance.
I write.
I study.
I . . . die a slow death from sheer exhaustion.

My epitaph will read:

She tried.

{21} Doctors sing and dance, too.

The medical class at the University of the West Indies puts on an annual fundraisng theatrical production called Smoker. I’ve never been to one, but from what I hear the response is par for the course with theatre: kind of a big deal for some, negligible for others. As for me, it’s theatre: there’s no way this production could pass me by.

Of course, that’s not so easy with me stuck all the way on the second campus while all of the action is going on on the main. Despite the distance, I managed to get elected on the Smoker Committee – as Script Editorial Chair! Communicating/coordinating with the main campus is a pain at best, but now that they’ve gone and split my post between myself and the runner up, I’m given to wonder if they won’t start to bypass my input altogether. Which would suck. A lot. Especially as I’m determined to contribute in some (major) way to this thing.

So for the time being I’m just waiting. Our production won’t happen for another year or so, since the class ahead of us has just had their weekend. I’m all geared up for it, and so impatient to start planning, but everyone around me is kind of lukewarm about the whole thing. I’m being generous. The atmosphere is more like that chilly feeling you get when you dip your toe into an unheated pool. My campus has been really supportive of me, so I won’t complain. And I’m not sure the main campus is any more. . . enthused than we are. I guess it’s up to the committee to inspire the fervour. I just hope they don’t look at me; I’ve got about as much fervour as one of the cadavers downstairs. And about as much chance of sharing it.

I’ll just sit tight with my red pen and wait to do what I do best. Hopefully the ink won’t dry out before I’m called to duty.