By Brooks Dareff
Amblessed Onuma is a man of action. Given a choice to stay or go, he goes. He attends school year-round. He works. He plays soccer. He aspires to surgery, having once envisioned aeronautical engineering – and flying. Even in his waking dreams, he is on the move.
But apparently there is a limit.
A few years ago, Amblessed was attending Forsythe Technical Community College fulltime and working 32 hours a week at two jobs to pay for school and contribute at home in Winston-Salem. “When I was free, I’d run to the library to do my work,” he says. It’s no wonder the May 2012 Carolina graduate and Covenant Scholar dozed off during a biology exam.
“I was so exhausted I fell asleep. My teacher went downstairs, got me a muffin, woke me up and said ‘Hey, you’ve got to finish the test,’” Amblessed says. That teacher, Alice Rudolph, “encouraged me to apply to Carolina. She inspired me. I had a goal. I had my sites set to go to medical school. She started that motivation in me.”
Guidance counselors had other ideas. “‘Why don’t you become an EMT,’ they said, trying to steer me away from my goal, take the safer route,” Amblessed recalls. And Carolina was barely on Amblessed’s radar, not surprising, considering he’d lived in his native Nigeria through his sophomore year in high school.
“I didn’t even know about Carolina,” Amblessed marvels now. “I didn’t even know that Michael Jordan went there.”
So the road to Carolina began a continent away. His father’s younger brother was a postal worker in Winston-Salem, a single parent raising two young children of his own after his wife died of cancer in 2000 – and the man who is now Amblessed’s stepfather.
“I grew up in Nigeria. At age 15 my dad came to me and said, ‘Look son, I want you to go to the U.S. and get a better education.’ He had already made an arrangement,” Amblessed says. “It was a tough decision to make. I had my friends and family there. I had less than a week to decide.”
On Aug. 15, 2005 – the exact dates of significant events are committed to memory – Amblessed moved to North Carolina, just in time to begin school. He spent his junior and senior years at North Forsythe High School, including extra time in English as a Second Language classes, as he grew up in Nigeria speaking Igbo. It was a tough transition. “The huge shock was high school,” he says.
For three months following graduation, Amblessed volunteered in a nursing home, the Brian Center Health and Rehabilitation of Winston-Salem, working with patients, which started his interest in medicine. “It was my first experience in helping people,” he says.
After a year in community college, Amblessed applied on Jan. 1, 2009, to Carolina, and was admitted as a sophomore. “I got in but I didn’t have the money to go,” he says. “I wasn’t even excited.” He was informed in June that he would be a Covenant Scholar – and that as such his expenses at Carolina would be covered because his family’s income was within the eligibility maximum of twice the federal poverty standard. His older sister Joy, who had attended community college for two years, was also a Covenant Scholar, and would start school at Carolina with him in August.
“When I became a Covenant Scholar I was so excited. I didn’t have to worry about anything,” Amblessed says. “It’s just been phenomenal. I just go to classes; I don’t have to worry about paying for classes. And jobs were about resume-building.”
Amblessed fulfilled Covenant’s work-study component in the chemistry lab his sophomore year and as a junior in the histology lab at the School of Medicine, where he also worked part-time as a senior, when his work-study requirement was eliminated through a family’s anonymous contribution. “It was a lot of money,” he says, shaking his head in wonder. “I don’t even know where it came from.”
Adjusting to Carolina initially took a little doing. There were seven people in Amblessed’s biology class in community college. At Carolina, there were 250. The Covenant eased the transition, from its workshops – “the one on studying tips, I took full advantage of that, and the etiquette class,” – to its mentoring programs, as well as the health sciences information program that helped Amblessed choose his course of study; and, as important, the personal touches. “[Covenant Academic Coordinator] Fred Clark took me out to lunch one day,” he says. “He wanted to know how I was doing adjusting.”
Just fine, as it turned out. The biology major with a chemistry minor became a regular on the Dean’s List. He received the Hayden B. Renwick Academic Achievement Award – named for the late UNC dean – from 2009-2011. Among his activities, he was a minority adviser from August 2010 to May 2012 for freshmen on the pre-med track and volunteered from January 2010 through December 2011 at the UNC Hospitals emergency department and surgical waiting room. And, honoring his father’s admonition to “get a better education,” Amblessed followed it to the letter, filling his summers, too: He spent six weeks in 2010 at the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program at Duke, which exposes students to Duke’s first-year medical school curriculum; and nine weeks in 2011 in the Medical Education Development Program at UNC, a demanding academic program for disadvantaged students that mimics the first year of medical school.
After earning admission to the UNC School of Medicine – where his tuition will be covered by a Medical Tuition Scholarship — Amblessed won a fellowship to participate in UNC Project Malawi, a research, care and training program in the capital city of Lilonge. There, through the month of June, he shadowed UNC surgeons, including Dr. Anthony Charles, a Carolina Covenant mentor. Charles’ example and counseling had a profound influence on Amblessed, who before going to Malawi, “was so sure I wanted to do cardiothoracic surgery,” he says. “Dr. Charles is a general surgeon and he could do anything. That’s where you’re really helpful in a developing country.”
Amblessed wants to return to Malawi next summer to do research. He also plans to take a fifth year beyond the four medical school requires to earn a master’s degree at the UNC School of Global Public Health, which will dovetail with his career interest in doing some work in global medicine out of a research-based hospital like UNC’s. From there, the vision is full circle. In retirement “or eventually” he wants to return as a working physician to Nigeria. All in all, an amazing journey – already – for the young man who as a 15-year-old first set foot in North Carolina knowing little English and nothing about what the future might hold.
“If you had told me I was going to medical school when I was in community college I would have laughed at you. If you had told me I was going to go to college for free I would have just slapped you,” he says, only partly in jest. “It’s amazing – I would have just laughed and walked away. I am really grateful for the Covenant Program. And I know there are other people who have benefited. And that gives me great joy.”