Estella is …
I am a young African woman who is very passionate about healthcare and education and have spent most of my life trying to combine these two in order to bring about change in the health and education systems of my country, Cameroon.
What are you currently busy with?
Right now I’m a medical student at the University of Buea in Cameroon. I just finished my fourth year of the seven year med school program. I’ve had a really busy year so I’m spending the summer catching a breather. I’m also organizing a youth career conference in my region in Cameroon under the Jumpstart Academy’s Africa Program. Jumpstart is an NGO started by a graduate of ALA’s inaugural class, Madel Kangha. We teach young people about entrepreneurship. I’m the country director for Cameroon. Eventually I want to teach something related to health, which will help me combine my passion for health and education. I don’t want to be your typical medical student who goes to the hospital, saves the patient and have it end there. I’m working towards a bigger vision – of connecting to my community in a larger sense, and playing my part in addressing problems across the board, through the health sector.
What were your motivations for doing what you’re doing now?
I’ve always believed that health is wealth. I say that because I grew up in an environment where many people I knew died because of lack of basic health facilities. My mom once told me the story of a man who died while waiting in the consultation lobby of a hospital. Stories like these developed my empathy for my people who lacked access. I decided that to affect change, I need to live the experience of being a health personnel myself. My career guidance counsellor advised me to study in my home country if that’s where I wanted to bring solutions to problems. I wanted to be able to provide solutions to problems I understood and rather than problems I assumed I understood. Studying in Cameroon means that I’m not applying my knowledge to stories I hear, but to events I experience.
Is it what you expected it to be? In what ways ‘yes’ and in what ways ‘no’?
Being a medical student is more work than I expected! You come in with these fancy ideas about saving lives and doing amazing things. But it’s very very busy. You’re always working – either in the classroom or in the hospital. You have no life. It’s remarkable to be in a hospital and be with a patient who’s on the brink of death and you do something and the patient comes back to life. Sometimes you do your best and the patient still doesn’t survive. It’s a lot. You start doing hospital rotations with doctors in your second year but get to interact with patients in the capacity of a medical practitioner in training in your fourth year. So this past year was my first year dealing with patients hands-on.
Do you feel that what you’re currently busy with is connected to ALA’s vision? How so?
I think very much so. ALA’s vision is to develop the next generation of African leaders who are problem solvers in all sectors. Medicine needs people who think according to the mindset of, “What is wrong here and how can I fix it?” Also, my work with Jumpstart Academy included identifying talent [so] I search for mentors who deliver leadership and entrepreneurship lessons to young people. At ALA, I was a student ambassador, which included helping with the second round of selections at finalist weekend. That experience taught me talent recruitment skills and techniques that I use in my work with Jumpstart. This summer, we will be working with four other Cameroonian ALAians – Genesis Tangong, Sally Asu, Abi Chungong and Ndonda Aude (who is Gabonaise). We currently have 100 students from almost 10 different schools. I get to teach students from schools in the South-West of Cameroon every Wednesday.
What has been your most impactful lesson learnt from this past year?
I’ve been learning the importance of failure. I say that because the medical program attracts a lot of high achieving students from all over and brings them together. When you go to the hospital, it’s not about how much classroom knowledge you have; it’s about how well you interact with your patients. The first few weeks, you have a lot of thoughts like, “I am I smart enough to be here?” But you can’t convey that to your patient. My hospital experience has exposed me and my peers to not being patted on the back for everything we do and failing quite a bit for the first time of our lives. It’s been important to connect the theory and knowledge side of medicine and the human side of being a doctor. Failing makes you think out of your comfort zone and keeps shifting you to new levels of confidence.
What are your plans for the upcoming year?
I’ll be busy with my fifth year of medical school, and will take the Medical Doctor Exit Exam at the end the year. For this exam, doctors and professors from all over the region evaluate your skills. In your 6th year, you take an exam that enables you to practice in Cameroon and you become a licensed practitioner. At the end of that exam, I hope to take up an internship via Africa Careers Network (ACN) with Médecins Sans Frontières. I’ve always wanted to work with them, and this is the first time ACN and MSF have come together to offer this opportunity so I’m hoping to able to take that up. I would love to get that best of both worlds experience working in big city hospitals and smaller, rural hospitals.
What is the ideal place you see yourself in the next five years?
I look forward to having graduated from medical school in three years. I want to work with a global health initiative that goes across Africa piloting various health initiatives. Before specialization – I’m not sure what I want to specialize in right now – I really want to travel and work in different communities working with organizations like MSF or the Global Health Corps.
How are you working towards that, in either a broad or a specific sense?
For one, working with people at Jumpstart is doing a lot for my interpersonal skills, which are essential for work as a doctor. Also, I’ve undertaken several internships via ACN with various medical and research bodies. After my first and second years of university I interned with the Kwa-Zulu-Natal Research Institute for HIV and Tuberculosis (K-RITH) and at the end of my third year I interned in Cameroon at a biotechnology venture for malaria research. I also served as the first female president of the Medical Students’ Association at my University That experience prepared me for greater challenges of leadership in the health sector.
Any advice for alums looking to follow a path similar to yours?
If you’re studying abroad, I highly recommend understanding the problems that face your community first hand. This can be done by undertaking internships on the continent. The need is enormous, the opportunities are limitless but the human resources are limited. If you’re at home, establish your networks. You need to team up to do worthwhile things; one person cannot do it alone.