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Mirroring Med School Success in the Bronx

Einstein medical student Ilirjan Gjonbalaj and mom

The author with his mother at Einstein’s On Becoming a Physician Ceremony in 2014

EDITORS’ NOTE: We celebrate all of our graduates receiving their degrees on Thursday, May 24. But it’s always a special moment when someone from our Morris Park neighborhood completes their journey at Einstein. Today we present the story of one such student along with the support he found in the Bronx that led to his M.D. degree. 

Graduation is here, the culmination of years of exams, hard work and unique experiences. As a native Bronxite with two big dreams in life—becoming a doctor and attending Einstein—this is an incredibly personal milestone that I’m happy to reflect on.

First Generation in the Bronx

My parents are ethnic Albanians from Montenegro (then part of Yugoslavia), who moved to the Bronx in the late 1980s. They were part of a wave of emigrants from the Balkans escaping an increasingly oppressive and intolerant regime. Many Albanians chose the Bronx, mostly after hearing about those who had made the move before them. Soon, one of the largest Albanian communities in the United States took shape in an unpretentious New York City borough.

In 1990, I was born at North Central Bronx Hospital and, following an age-old cliché, became a first-generation American navigating two cultures. I touched most of the major plot points: finding pride in my name after having been made fun of, teaching American friends about Albanian culture and eating burek with my cousins while watching reality television. I ping-ponged between feeling Albanian and feeling American, though I never quite mastered that game.

Powered by Public School

I did master school, particularly math and science. I had amazing teachers at both P.S. 8 and P.S. 83 in the Bronx who motivated me, cultivating my skills and interests. I learned through counselors about specialized high schools in New York City that admit students based on a standardized exam. With help from a free preparatory program I was accepted to the High School of American Studies (HSAS) at Lehman College, a major milestone that changed the trajectory of my academic life. At HSAS, my classmates came from other boroughs of the city and from all walks of life. The discipline required to compete against students from different backgrounds broadened my formerly limited view of what I could accomplish in this world.

Discovering Medicine

One constant in my life was my pediatrician, Dr. Marguerite Mayers of the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore (CHAM). She was my first medical role model, because, like many kids in the Bronx, I didn’t have any physicians in the family. Dr. Mayers is a legend in our household due to the deeply compassionate care she gave to me and my two older siblings. As I began to consider my career choices, I leaned on Dr. Mayers for her insight and advice. I also began soaking up as much information as I could about the world of medicine: shadowing physicians, volunteering in clinics and pursuing premedical coursework at the Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College. It wasn’t smooth sailing from there, though. I took some time off after Hunter, which allowed me to retake the MCAT and pursue a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship in Kosovo.

Eventually, I received the email that would change my life forever—I had gotten accepted to Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Discovering Psychiatry and Staying Home

Medical school is filled with triumphs and challenges that make for a transformative experience. I entered as a first-year student dead-set on becoming a pediatrician. But clerkships and a variety of volunteer experiences changed my path. Being a student at Einstein helped me become a student of the world. I took part in a research project studying the food environment in the Bronx and also an international project in Stockholm, Sweden, studying callous-unemotional traits in children. I found my truer calling as a psychiatrist with an interest in child and adolescent psychiatry.

On match day all of my Bronx and Einstein-Montefiore experiences came full circle. Opening the envelope, I discovered I would be training in psychiatry at Montefiore. I later found Dr. Mayers at CHAM to share in the excitement.

I had thought these moments weren’t destined to happen to me. Einstein and Montefiore were institutions where my family went for care, where babies were born, checkups were done, and loved ones spent their final days.  Growing up in Morris Park, I walked by the Einstein campus regularly, marveling at the hustle and bustle of students in white coats, never believing I’d be one of them, because I didn’t know anyone like them. Now I understand the great power of having mirrors in your community that reflect who you are and who you want to be. Deep, meaningful relationships and mentorships are crucial to help recruit and develop students traditionally underrepresented in medicine. With this in mind, I’m thrilled to begin the next step in my medical career as a psychiatry resident at the Montefiore Medical Center and to become one of those mirrors in the Bronx.

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Ilirjan Gjonbalaj

Ilirjan Gjonbalaj

Ilirjan is a fourth-year medical student at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He will be a psychiatry resident at Montefiore Medical Center.

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  • GP June 3, 2018, 2:01 PM

    A very inspiring story. I wish you lots is success in your career.