Breaking Med School Stereotypes One Activity At A Time: Oluchi’s Aluta and Chill

January 9, 2020

Students in Nigerian universities have stories to tell, but hardly anyone to tell them to. For our weekly series, Aluta and Chill, we are putting the spotlight on these students and their various campus experiences.

Today’s subject is Oluchi Buchi-Njere, a 400 level student of Medicine and Surgery University of Lagos. She shares what it means to be a medical student, the stereotypes she is expected to conform to, and how she’s breaking away from that cycle.

When did you know it was going to be medicine for you?

To be honest, it always felt natural for me to study medicine. The idea had always appealed to me even when I didn’t know what it meant. When it was time to make a conscious decision, I did a ton of research to find out what I needed to know. Not to toot any horn or anything, but I’d never been a bad student – and that reinforced the idea that I should go to medical school. I went after it, and I got it.

Mad. Nothing about the research you made scared you?

Many people expect med students to be originally deterred by the numbers of years attached to it, but I didn’t care about that. I was just raring to go, you know? Maybe I should have thought more about the years because my mates are on their NYSC now. It’s powerful what excitement can do to you. 

What really worried and challenged me was how people described the medical school as a pressure cooker —  that kind of place where you get stuck in an enervating academic routine that threatens to run you down. But again, the eyes were on the prize, so here we are. 

Why Unilag? 

I had no interest in studying anywhere after Lagos. Everywhere else seems boring. Stuff happens in Unilag. That’s pretty much it. The application process almost went sideways, though.

What happened?

I applied in 2016, and that was the year UNILAG removed a shitload of prospective students from their lists and randomly transferred them to other schools. I think the directive came from JAMB. That was upsetting because it affected me, and as I said, I didn’t think any other university would be a good fit for me. They eventually fixed it, but it was a big scare. I got in, started a new life, albeit temporary, on the main campus, then transferred to med school in 200 level.

When you transferred to med school in your second year, did you find all the ‘pressure cooker’ talk to be true? 

Heh. I’d confirmed that to be true even before med school. In 100 level, I got a lot of advice on how to stay on top of my game to make the selection for med school and what to do to remain there. I would say all the advice came from a good place, and of course, they helped. But then, there is this idea that you have to study all the time – and that was the bulk of the orientation content. It’s become a stereotype, really, that if you want to survive med school, every bit of your time has to be devoted to schoolwork. I knew what I was in for and I knew that I had to do the work, but I reasoned that there had to be more for me

What did that mean for you?

When I first got here, I hadn’t fully understood the extent of the things I could do, but I just wanted to do more than just school. It was going to be a big change because my life had always revolved around school, but I needed to make that change.

And I guess you did.

Yup. I saw an advertisement to join the editorial board of the Association of Medical Students, University of Lagos. That was the first definite step I took to get out of my comfort zone and break away from the life everyone expects me to live. The application process was really interesting and every step of it fueled my excitement. Of course, I got in. 

What do you do there?

As a board, we produce the association’s annual digest and run a science conference every year. Personally, I do a lot of stuff tailored to my strengths, especially in proofreading and editing. I’ve spent about four years as a part of the editorial board now and it’s opened me to new possibilities on what I can do, particularly in medical research, which I’m actually considering as a career path now. It’s done wonders for my sense of responsibility. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve made.

That sounds really cool.

It is. I could have stopped there because the editorial board takes a major chunk of my time, but I knew there was still more to do. This time, I joined an NGO.

Tell me about that?

The name is The Neo Child Initiative. I joined in 2018. We work with children, with a focus on health and mentorship. We do a lot of outreach and other health education stuff. Fun fact: we tried to break the world record on the ‘Largest Handwashing Lesson’ on the Global Handwashing Day. We got over 2000 children together to teach them the process of handwashing. It’s funny, but not a lot of people know that there is a specific process to handwashing.

There is?

Haha, yes. There are steps to it. Even I need to remind myself sometimes to do it.

Source: World Health Organisation

So yes, we do all these health stuff on one hand. On the other hand, we’re teaching older children about the SDGs and how to be changemakers, and how to set goals among other things. I’m very big on goal-setting, so this one excites me as I’m at the forefront of nurturing the young folks. 

I’m the secretary of the NGO now, and I’ve become more involved with the operations of the organisation. I’m doing all these things I never thought I had the capability to pull off, and it’s refreshing and liberating.

My favourite project with the NGO, so far, is one I became a part of last year as the project manager. It’s called the Hanging Libraries of Nigeria.

What’s it about?

It’s a literacy project to provide libraries to schools around Nigeria. It’s still a work in progress, and to be honest, there is a lot to do. For now, the libraries we install are not very resource-intensive. We hang them in classes and stock them with books. The targets are primary schools. This is something I’m really excited about and can’t wait to see how it goes.

You are having a lot of fun, aren’t you?

I am. The NGO has become a family to me. There is this feel-good energy that comes with everything I do with them. We are doing great work, and I couldn’t be prouder.

However, my work with them has convinced me of how much we need comprehensive health insurance coverage across the country. There’s only so much that an outreach can do. We go to communities and see children who have never seen a doctor or have never been vaccinated. It’s a brewing crisis. 

I know you’re putting yourself out there, but where does your academics rank in the grand scheme of things?

Let me start with this: I wrote my first professional exams after 200 level in anatomy, biochemistry, and physiology. The grades came out and I got credits in all three, which wasn’t actually bad, but I was hoping to get at least a distinction. When that happened, I was pretty bummed and contemplated taking a step back from everything I was doing and just put all my focus on academics. I was close to going back to that ‘academic-only routine’ but I had people who set me straight. 

Now, academics are still very much there and I will ride with it to the end. However, I will shift academics to a side temporarily to do some things. I used to have all As in my results, but now I have a mix of Bs in them, but it’s fine. At the end of the day, what really matters is striking a balance and sticking with what works.

Is there a process to how you maintain this balance?

There is no formula if that’s what you mean. I wished there was because I suspect it would make my life easier. I’ve just learned to prioritise and make an extra effort to catch up on any schoolwork I miss. I just try to stay on top of things as much as I can. It’s not perfect, but it’s something. 

The most important thing is I’m doing stuff that matters to me, and I have a life outside the one everyone expects me to have and cling to. I can’t let the classroom be the only thing that decides what I am.

Can’t get enough Aluta and Chill? Check back every Thursday at noon for a new episode. Find other stories in the series here.

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