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Person of the Week
Sotonye Douglas: Finding Medicine’s Intersections of Art and Science, Ability, and Need
Sotonye Douglas has made North Haven her home while going to med school here, but her efforts are helping students of medicine, law, and more across the country. (Photo courtesy of Sotonye Douglas)
Sotonye Douglas was born in Brooklyn to a Nigerian father and a Jamaican mother who met after immigrating to New York. Now living in North Haven as a third-year medical student at Quinnipiac University’s Frank H. Netter MD School of Medicine, Sotonye has established herself as an achiever and a guiding force for others who may encounter obstacles along their journey to success.
“In terms of having a legacy in the U.S. and having generations of us being in the United States, I do not have that,” she says. “So that’s another reason why it’s super important for me to share [my story of] being a child of immigrants and still being able to figure things out and to go to college and to pursue a professional degree.”
Elected to Leadership
Sotonye was recently elected to a two-year term as Region VII director of the Student National Medical Association (SNMA), the nation’s largest student-run organization focused on supporting medical students of color. SNMA was founded in 1964 by students from Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C., and Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee. Both are historically Black schools.
Sotonye will represent students from six states with 11 medical schools and 20 undergraduate colleges and universities. According to the organization’s website, snma.org, “Region VII is [composed] of 11 SNMA chapters in the New England area, including Boston University, Brown, Dartmouth, Harvard, Tufts, University of Connecticut, University of Massachusetts, University of New England, University of Vermont, Quinnipiac University, and Yale.”
Sotonye says issues faced by students of color “pertain to some of the different socioeconomic backgrounds and communities that many of us come from. It’s not all, but there are definitely different struggles and different financial components that go into being an underrepresented student in medical school.
“SNMA works to alleviate some of those burdens through scholarships and partnerships with different organizations to provide resources and opportunities that may have never been possible,” she continues. “SNMA also works to bridge the gap in terms of resources. A lot of the time, someone may be interested in going into medicine, but they may not have a family member who was a doctor, or they might not have the best support at their current school, and that means anything from elementary school all the way up until college. If you don’t have someone who can guide you and key you in with different programs and different initiatives, it may be hard to continue to pursue medicine.”
Sotonye points out that SNMA seeks to support not only doctors of color but also those interested in serving struggling regions.
“SNMA is the oldest organization that really takes the time to reach back and create a continuum to guide the next chapter of physicians of color—and not just physicians of color, but physicians that are interested in working in communities of need,” she says.
Working Her Way Up
Almost a decade ago, while Sotonye was an undergrad at University at Albany, SUNY, one of her peers founded the school’s chapter of SNMA.
“I started out just learning more about the organization, so I was just a general member at that time, just going to the meetings and getting a feel for what SNMA had to offer,” Sotonye recalls. “I think my first realization of the power and the ability of SNMA to really be a stronghold was when I attended my first Annual Medical Education Conference (AMEC).”
It was 2015 and she went to New Orleans.
“Since attending that conference, I’ve just been in love with SNMA and that’s when I knew that this was an organization that I wanted to grow with,” she says.
The AMEC brings together at least 2,000 people from all over the U.S. and parts of the Caribbean every April. (The 2020 and 2021 conferences were virtual due to the pandemic.) Attendees eat together and celebrate the graduating students, the current graduating doctors, and the premed students entering SNMA and officially becoming medical students. An exhibitor fair offers information about various schools and residency programs.
“We also have sessions that are led by some of the biggest names in medicine, which is amazing to be able to attend and to be a part of,” Sotonye adds. “It is just the largest coming together of underrepresented people in medicine that you could ever imagine, and it’s amazing. To now be on the national board of directors and to make decisions that impact the entire organization, it’s a dream, honestly.”
Her Own Career Trajectory
As a child, Sotonye would declare that she was going to be a doctor whenever someone asked what she wanted to be when she grew up.
“I would kind of proclaim it without really even knowing for sure how I was going to get there,” she admits. “From when I was very young, that was just always the career that I found to be so inspiring. I also had a very immense passion for science and for art, and from early on, I was able to kind of see the art within medicine, so medicine was the joining factor that brought art and science together.”
When she was 14, Sotonye needed to see a doctor, and the doctor she saw just happened to be a Black woman like herself.
“This was the first time I had ever met a Black doctor, so I took it very, very seriously,” she says. “In my mind, it was like, ‘This is a sign that you can do this.’ She was my personal doctor, but I still looked at her as a mentor and kept in touch because I just wanted guidance to get to that goal.”
Sotonye went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in biology and visual art from the University at Albany and a master’s degree in biomedical sciences from the Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine. She is set to graduate from Quinnipiac’s School of Medicine in May 2023 and is still deciding what she will specialize in.
“I also had the opportunity to learn about social determinants of health in a way also involving art, but again, it just tied everything together,” she says. “Learning about the social determinants of health and seeing how it impacted my community, I wanted to make a change and I wanted to get into the field so that I could be the change as well.”
The 1001 Aspirations Project
Sotonye founded and runs a nonprofit called the 1001 Aspirations Project, a 501(c)3 partner project under the Fund for the City of New York. That initiative has an interesting impetus.
On March 26, 2020, Sotonye was featured on the popular Humans of New York (HONY) blog as one of its quarantine stories. On Facebook, the story received more than 329,000 likes, more than 7,500 comments, and was shared almost 10,000 times. The project was featured on Good Morning America last month.
“There was an outpouring of not only students in need but also love and support from all over the world, which was insane for me to even imagine happening,” she says. “I think the common theme at that time that I kept encountering was, ‘Financially, I have a similar story to yours; if you have books or if you have resources, please can you share them?’ and at the time I only had two sets of books that I had previously used.”
She tried to give them away fairly, but, she says, it didn’t seem fair. Luckily, others with books they were no longer using reached out to her and the effort grew.
“People would send me stuff and then I’d find the student that needed it, and that kind of went on until I got to about five book sets sent out,” Sotonye explains.
She decided to expand the project and make it official, giving herself until 2026 to achieve her goal of helping 1,001 students in some form.
“This is basically my response to everything that was going on with the COVID pandemic,” she says. “People were writing me saying they were homeless because of the pandemic or just some super heartbreaking stories, so I just wanted a way to give back during the madness of it all and that’s kind of where the project started.”
She has opened the book and resource exchange to law school students, dentistry students, and more.
“All of these professional courses usually have some type of an entrance exam,” Sotonye explains.
She is always seeking materials.
“If you have any gently used books, maybe like 2016 or newer, for any of the major exams, please consider donating them,” she says. “All of the information is on the website [1001aspirationsproject.com], and I would love to be able to send your books to a student in need.”
Her Current Community
Sotonye says she specifically chose New Haven as her “preclinical clinical site.”
“It sounds confusing, but that’s basically the site that we do Medical Student Home (MeSH),” she explains.
MeSH is part of Quinnipiac’s medical school program where each student is paired with a practicing community physician for a clinic for four hours a week.
“I was lucky enough to be paired with a physician in New Haven, so that’s been a joy the last two years to be able to be in that community and to meet the patients and kind of get a feel for what it’s like to actually practice here,” Sotonye says.
Along with being part of the North Haven community by virtue of living and going to school here, Sotonye is also involved with the Cheshire Wellness Fridays program and the Health Career Pathways, involving outreach to schools within New Haven.
“I enjoy the community very much, and it’s nice to see how it’s similar and different from where I grew up and the other places that I’ve lived,” Sotonye says.