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A Long Road Traveled, a Clear Path Ahead

Graduating senior Ijala Wilson, 2016 President's Award for Leadership “Outstanding Senior” and winner of a SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence. (Photo by Carlo de Jesus)

ALBANY, N.Y. (April 26, 2016) — It’s a lot farther than 158 miles from the South Bronx to the University at Albany.

“Growing up in an underserved, low-income community in the projects in the South Bronx, I was exposed to negative influences,” said Ijala Wilson, a 2016 President's Award for Leadership “Outstanding Senior,” and winner of the Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence. She ticked off a short list of what most would expect: drugs, violence and crime.

“I decided to follow a path less taken — I chose to receive an education,” she said. “I knew this was the only way to escape my troubles and to help my mother and six younger siblings.”

To do that, Wilson became the first person in her immediate family to advance from high school to attend college. Graduate from college? Absolutely. But she had no plans to stop there.

“I am an ambitious young woman,” she said. At UAlbany, majoring in human biology, Wilson pointed toward someday becoming a primary care physician. The steps she took were numerous and required hard work: Dean’s List every semester, Presidential Honor Society, Chi Alpha Epsilon National Honor Society, and Phi Delta Epsilon International Medical Fraternity.

She didn’t break with the school year. She spent six weeks in the summer of 2014 in the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program at Howard University's College of Medicine, then nine weeks in summer 2015 in Ethiopia, conducting public health research in Harvard University’s T.H Chan School of Public Health’s Multidisciplinary International Research Training Program. She co-authored a manuscript on her findings and presented them earlier this month at the New England Science Symposium, held at Harvard Medical School.

For all her successes, she knew her next steps after this May’s graduation would not be easy. “Since the end of my junior year I knew that I would have to take a ‘gap year’ before going to medical school,” said Wilson. “I didn’t quite exactly know what I wanted to do or could do with my time during this period. So, like always, I did some research.”

She came upon the Doctoral Diversity Program at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, which offers the opportunity to be mentored in research, develop professional skills and prepare for entry into medical school. “As soon as I found this program, I applied the next day,” she said, adding that she didn’t consider a next-best choice. “I was 100 percent looking forward to getting into the Johns Hopkins program,” she said. On April 19, she became one of five people accepted.

Ijala at UAlbany

Graduating senior Ijala Wilson poses at Harvard Medical School, where earlier this month she presented the research she conducted in Ethiopia at the New England Science Symposium.

Sharing her Wealth

There is another side of Wilson beyond career aspirations. “I value giving back to the community and mentorship,” she said. Her time at UAlbany has revealed as much.

As liaison for the Minority Association for Pre-Health/Premedical Students (MAPS), she helped develop and implement projects and programs for pre-medical students. These included community service at the Albany United Methodist Society, where, on Fridays after school, she and other MAPS members engaged with children, playing recreational games and helping with homework and computer skills. Wilson also sorted and folded donated clothing, raked and collected leaves, and cleaned up trash.

On campus, she been both a biology tutor in the CSTEP program and a peer mentor to five Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) underclassmen — “an enthusiastic peer mentor,” she stressed.

There is a reason. “I am proud to be . . . EOP!” she punctuated. “UAlbany has made my college experience worthwhile in many ways, and EOP has ultimately had the greatest impact on my experience here. Since the five-week summer program until now, it has equipped me with the knowledge and resources that I needed to succeed in college.”

According to Wilson, the dedication and passion which Martiza Martinez, Tyshena Hunter and all the other EOP staff have for the program and all its students is why EOP is still around and producing great scholars. “Without EOP, many great students from backgrounds such as mine wouldn't be able to attain higher education because of the educational and financial barriers that come from growing up in these types of neighborhoods,” she said.

The Future Ahead

From the South Bronx to where Wilson sits now may be a few million miles, but she has plans for at least a couple million more. While in Ethiopia last summer, she had the chance to tour many healthcare settings, from the specialized hospitals in the capital city of Addis Ababa to very minimal, basic rural health posts and clinics. She calls the week she spent volunteering in at an orphanage for HIV positive children “the highlight of my first 21 years of life.”

The experience provided even greater direction and ambition. “I hope to be a great service to not only the underserved people in my community; but a great service to the world,” said Wilson. “I want to offer the younger generation from underprivileged communities a positive role model. And, as a future health professional, I want to help the overall health of human beings and improve health disparities globally.”

Learn more about UAlbany's 2016 Chancellor's Award for Student Excellence Winners.

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About the University at Albany
A comprehensive public research university, the University at Albany offers more than 120 undergraduate majors and minors and 125 master's, doctoral, and graduate certificate programs. UAlbany is a leader among all New York State colleges and universities in such diverse fields as atmospheric and environmental sciences, business, criminal justice, emergency preparedness, engineering and applied sciences, informatics, public administration, social welfare, and sociology taught by an extensive roster of faculty experts. It also offers expanded academic and research opportunities for students through an affiliation with Albany Law School. With a curriculum enhanced by 600 study-abroad opportunities, UAlbany launches great careers.