Class of 2017: Resilience propels Juniper Lee Park to pursue path from young immigrant to physician
Soon after graduation from the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, Juniper Lee Park will move on to the next phase of her education: specialized training to become a pediatrician as a resident at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, DC.
It’s a career she did not imagine while growing up in South Korea. “My parents were interested in providing me and my younger brother better education and opportunities.”
While Lee Park was in elementary school, her parents began to explore immigration options. “When I was in the equivalent of seventh grade, the September 11 attacks happened, and the door for immigration to the United States basically closed,” Lee Park said.
Lee Park assumed her family would stay in South Korea, so she focused on working hard in school as her performance and test scores there would largely determine what kind of career opportunities would be available to her.
“When I was in the equivalent of 11th grade there, about to be a senior, the Department of Homeland Security sent us a letter saying there was a spot available to come to the U.S. – five years after we thought our chance was over,” Lee Park said.
The caveat was that one of her parents had to fill a nonprofessional job – basically one difficult to fill with U.S. workers. “The deal was that my dad was going to work in a chicken factory in Salisbury, Maryland, for one year, and then we would all get green cards.”
Her family decided to pursue the opportunity. Lee Park had learned English grammar in school, but was not versed in the language conversationally when she started as a junior in high school. “It was such an intense time, but also a happy time. As a family unit, we are so close – it’s just the four of us; the rest of our family doesn’t live here,” Lee Park said.
Her hard work during the 11th and 12th grades to not only learn the language, but also make herself a competitive college applicant, paid off. The University of Virginia offered Lee Park a scholarship.
Lee Park majored in chemistry and also stayed a fifth year to earn a master’s degree in teaching, which she thought would be her ultimate career path.
“It’s such a noble job – you change people’s lives so much,” Lee Park said. “But if the child is sick, they are not going to come to school and there was nothing I could do about it.”
That realization led Lee Park to pursue medical school. She attended Virginia Commonwealth University to earn a post-baccalaureate health sciences certificate while studying for and taking the MCAT.
After earning multiple acceptances to medical schools, Lee Park decided to come to the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine.
“The appeal of this school is that it is small in size and you get that attention,” Lee Park said. “It’s also research-intensive, and Roanoke seemed to be a really welcoming community.”
Lee Park did well in her studies, but found herself struggling some during the transition to the clinical setting in the third year. The intimacy of the school allowed her to get the support she needed and boost her confidence.
“I was doing okay in the clinical setting and my evaluators said I was doing fine, but it wasn’t comfortable for me yet,” Lee Park said. She found help from Heidi Lane, senior director of clinical skills assessment and education. “Each block I would go to her after the patient encounter and exchange feedback, and she wanted to hear from me, too – how I felt about it and how can we do better next time. The school was so generous in having that kind of support system.”
Lee Park also found the mentors for her research project – a requirement for all VTCSOM students – to be greatly influential for her success as well. Stephanie DeLuca, research assistant professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and assistant professor of pediatrics for the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, was Lee Park’s primary mentor, with support from Sharon Ramey, professor and Distinguished Research Scholar, and Stephen Laconte, associate professor, both with the research institute.
“They really helped me understand how scientists promote creative ideas and pursue that without being rigid about the schedule, as can happen in a clinical setting,” Lee Park said.
Her research looked at brain changes of pediatric patients with cerebral palsy who undergo therapy where the unaffected limbs are bound so patients learn to use their affected limbs.
“The research project showed me the overall theme that I’m really interested in: resilience. There are many moments when I’m going through a hard time and I ask why I’m doing this? But when I think about resilience, I’m able to understand I need to keep going,” Lee Park said. “I want to be that person who says, if I can do this, you can too.”
After her three-year pediatrics residency, Lee Park is considering pursuing a fellowship in neonatal intensive care. “That’s when the resilience really kicks in,” Lee Park said. “But that goal is secondary – my primary goal is becoming a good pediatrician.”
As graduation approaches, her family is seeing the results of their decision to come to the United States. Lee Park is set to become the first in her extended family to become a doctor – but her brother won’t be far behind her. He is finishing his first year at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.