As a fourth-year student at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, Neslihan Ari is well on her way to earning her medical degree. However, finding her way to the school in the first place was more than challenging.

Born and raised within walking distance of the local hospital in Istanbul, Turkey, Ari knew she wanted to be a doctor when she grew up. As a youngster, she was enamored with the doctors who came into her parents’ tailoring shop. She would often ask them questions about illnesses and engage their attention.

“I realized they were leaders in the community, not just within the walls of the hospital,” she said. “I knew early on that was going to be my path.” When she moved to America at the age of 16, her first obstacle occurred when she graduated from her Rochester, New York, high school with honors but was never advised about taking the SAT in order to go to college.

“Reflecting back, I just kind of fell through the cracks,” she said. “Most Turkish children don’t go to college, so counseling was overlooked. Being a first-generation immigrant, I didn’t know the system.”

Her next option was to attend a community college, after which she hoped to transfer to a four-year school.  She earned her associate’s degree, and then a business opportunity presented itself in California. The two-year adventure there proved to be successful, but her goal of becoming a doctor was never far from her mind.

“I knew I wanted to go back to school because medicine was always the goal for me,” she said. “It was always the end goal. I just had to jump through a lot of hoops.”

She returned to the East Coast, helped her parents pay off their mortgage with her earnings from the business venture, and graduated from the University of Rochester with a degree in biology. She started working first as a patient care technician at Rochester General Hospital System, then as a data coordinator for Strong Memorial Hospital. Once again, the road to medical school took another detour when she sought advice from members of the university’s pre-health advising committee, who told her she would have a more competitive edge to getting into medical school if she completed either a post-baccalaureate program or obtained a master’s degree.

Taking advantage of tuition assistance as a graduate assistant, Ari completed her master’s degree while teaching at the State University of New York Brockport. There, she met the director of the school’s pre-health committee, who took Ari under her wing and guided her through the process of applying for medical school.

“I was willing to do pretty much whatever she told me to do because I had so much respect for her,” Ari said. “She was the first person to take my ambitions seriously and really guide my way.”

The Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine (VTCSOM) quickly became her top choice, especially after coming for an interview and returning for a second look.

“The culture at VTCSOM was mind-blowing to me,” she said. “It’s marked by support, transparency, humanism, and a true desire from faculty and administration to see you succeed. In contrast, other medical schools can sometimes be a grueling and challenging environment. I jokingly asked the students I met during the interview process, ‘Are you paid actors? Because there’s no way you can be this happy.’”

One aspect of the curriculum Ari enjoyed during the first two pre-clinical years was problem-based learning in which small groups of students learn basic and abnormal physiological systems using patient cases to teach each other.

Problem-based learning “trains us, even if we don’t notice it, to think through problems in a certain way,” she said. “When we do it now in our clerkships, it’s just natural. We are well-prepared for clinical rotations in our third and fourth years. Our school does a phenomenal job training us.”

After being accepted to VTCSOM, Ari learned she was the recipient of the Morgan Dana Harrington Memorial Scholarship, established by the school’s vice dean Daniel Harrington and his wife, Gil, to honor their daughter, Morgan, a Virginia Tech student who was killed in the fall of 2009. Morgan had been an intern at the school the summer before she died.

“I am absolutely honored,” Ari said. “It’s very important to me to make Morgan proud and to make the Harringtons proud. It’s an incredible opportunity as an immigrant as well. I want to be able to encourage the younger generation, especially women, to pursue medicine, and this scholarship has been an essential part of that. I want to serve my community and pay it forward.”

Since its inception, 10 deserving VTCSOM students have received the scholarship. Learn more about the scholarship and how to give.

Now, years later and after quite a bit of perseverance, Ari has her sights on becoming a surgeon. Even though her parents sometimes suggest she pursue a career in business, she takes comfort in the fact that her desires in medicine are finally being fulfilled.

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