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    Fortitude and Resilience: The Journey of a Navy Medical Student

    Fortitude and Resilience: The Journey of Alexius Russell

    Courtesy Photo | Commissioning day for ENS Alexius Russell, a dream 10+ years in the making. (Photo...... read more read more



    Story by Vivian Mason 

    Uniformed Services University

    Black History Month gives us the opportunity to reflect on African American contributions, achievements, and culture. In 1837, Dr. James McCune Smith became the first African American to earn a medical degree when he graduated from the University of Glasgow, Scotland. Later, in 1847, Dr. David Jones Peck was the first African American medical student to graduate from a U.S. medical school when he completed his studies at Rush Medical College, in Chicago.

    These two pioneers in medicine pressed on through hardships and pitfalls to pave the way for other minorities to pursue medicine, for future medical students to forge their own accomplishments, and for minority youth to aspire to careers in healthcare.

    Uniformed Services University (USU) students bring a richness of purpose, as well as personal and academic accomplishments. They possess strength of character, keen intellect, and a commitment to service and community. Through their personal stories, they are represented, acknowledged, and appreciated.

    Navy Ensign Alexius Russell stands determined, steadfast, and motivated in making her dreams come true. Russell believes in not being defined by life’s circumstances and has fiercely embraced the inspiring words of poet Maya Angelou into her life path: “I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.” Russell, a first-year medical student at USU, is a tough, positive force, although things have never come easy for her.
    Throughout her life, Russell experienced mental, physical, and emotional abuse, as well as homelessness, often resorting to sleeping in stalls or couch surfing. Despite barely being able to afford the bus fare to get to school, she persevered.

    “My goal of becoming a physician has never changed,” Russell insists, “but the trajectory and the pathway have been altered multiple times.” She continues, “I’m very spiritual, and I believe God is there. Something always told me that this [pathway] was not my end and that things were going to get better.”

    Over the years, Russell asked herself, “Why me?” Ultimately, however, she believes in taking ownership to fulfill her life and making her own dreams come true. As well as becoming a doctor, Russell would like to work within various communities and inspire children. She also wants to develop a nonprofit that will assist children with creating careers. “I know that I deserve more and I believe that I have to keep trying,” Russell says. “If you don’t try, you never know what you can achieve.”

    Russell’s mother often reminds her that, at age 3, she talked about being a doctor. All through school, she was an honor student. She even started college at age 16 (via a state scholarship to earn an associate degree), but past that, Russell didn’t know how she was going to pay for medical school because of a lack of financial support. That, along with other family issues, pushed Russell in the direction of the U.S. Navy, wherein she enlisted at age 18 as an electrician.

    “Even in that position,” Russell notes, “I still surrounded myself with medical mentors and continued to build the characteristics needed to be a successful future doctor. When I joined the Navy, I made a promise to myself that I would give back and help those in need. I volunteered in soup kitchens, helped the homeless, and worked with disabled children. I also worked very hard with my command to find volunteer opportunities where I could help individuals in need. Nothing was going to stop me.”

    Russell was eventually deployed and didn’t get the chance to complete her college degree at Old Dominion University, so she earned her degree online. “I did what I could,” she recalls. “I started preparing myself to acquire whatever extra credentials I’d need to go to medical school.”

    Continuing, Russell adds: “I owe the Navy a lot. They developed me into the person I am today and gave me the tools to be successful. I always wanted my medical career to be in the Navy.”

    One day, she and a fellow Sailor were discussing their goals and aspirations. He told Russell about USU, but she did plenty of her own research as well. It wasn’t long before she applied to the Enlisted to Medical Degree Preparatory Program, or EMDP2. EMDP2, a two-year program offered by USU that allows promising enlisted service members interested in a career as a military physician a pathway to medical school while remaining on active duty.

    Russell wasn’t accepted into the program the first time she applied. However, she did not let the rejection crush her spirit; instead she reached out to the EMDP2 program director and administrative officer for help improving her presentation packet. She was persistent in her desire to pursue her dream. Russell pressed on, made the adjustments, reapplied, and finally got her acceptance to EMDP2. After she completed the program, she was accepted into USU and four other medical schools. However, with a beaming smile she maintains that USU was always her number one choice. “I’m ecstatic to be here, because all it takes sometimes is one ‘yes’ to change your life trajectory.”

    Reflecting on her path to medical school, Russell adds, “It took me 10 years to get here. It’s been a long journey, and it’s still a long journey, but every day I’m grateful to be at USU. Medical school is hard and challenging. I take one day at a time and get one step closer every day. I’m big on celebrating small accomplishments because I believe that you can build and accomplish your goals brick by brick.”

    Through all of these challenges, Russell managed levels of emotional closure. “That’s why I feel free to share my story. There are always other people who may be dealing with some of the same issues, and they may be lost. They may not know how to overcome these hard things because in the midst of a whirlwind, there’s a lot that can be overwhelming.”
    She believes, “as time goes on, you can heal, especially when you start putting that energy toward becoming a better version of yourself. Then, life can begin to get a little easier.”

    Russell puts a lot of time and effort into balancing her studies, coursework, clinical activities, and self-care, as well as adjusting to a new environment as a first-year student. “Many times,” she notes, “I’ve questioned if I belong here. But, more often than not, there are moments like today (doing great on a physical exam final) when I feel like I absolutely do belong!”

    Today, Russell is president of the USU Student National Medical Association (SNMA). She’s also working on a panel series to support underrepresented minorities at USU wherein physicians and upperclassmen can give talks on various subjects of importance to those new students.

    Russell also started a personal YouTube channel to assist minority individuals trying to navigate the medical school process. “I want to encourage other individuals who want to become doctors, but who don’t have the financial support, mentorship, or guidance to get where they need to be,” she maintains. “As I trek through this journey, I want to share the tools and tips that I’ve learned. It’s important to me to try and make their journey a little easier.”

    Russell praises the opportunities that USU provides. “This university is a hidden gem that people don’t know about. There are so many things that underrepresented students aren’t aware of that could making getting to medical school a lot easier. I want to help with that.”

    To conclude, Russell offers her wisdom. “If you have to look in the mirror every single day and say ‘I can do it, I can get through this module successfully, or I can pass this test,’ then that’s what you have to do. I believe that words are power. What you speak is what you believe, and what you believe is going to translate in your work ethic and into successful outcomes. Having that mentality will change your perspective.”



    Date Taken: 02.02.2022
    Date Posted: 02.02.2022 08:26
    Story ID: 413847

    Web Views: 2,285
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