I was 19 years old when I first travelled to Tanzania alone. I had just completed my freshman year at Duke University, having taken my finals three days before boarding a flight from New York City to Dar es Salaam. At the stopover in Dubai airport, I was greeted by the sound of azan, the Muslim morning call to prayer. It felt surreal, hearing the azan again. It reminded me of my home in Johor, where I would hear it every morning before going to school in my blue pinafore.
As the connecting flight took off from Dubai, I witnessed the massive orange sun rising against a backdrop of clear blue sky, a desert that stretched as far as the eye could see, and man-made islands that were sculpted to perfection.
It was the most beautiful sunrise I had ever seen. With my mind swarming with youthful idealism, I thought about how I would make a difference in Tanzania. My “Genocide in 20th Century” class and the liberal feminist professor who taught it had inspired me to channel my anger against injustice towards productive work.
In the five weeks I spent in Dar es Salaam, I taught 300 secondary school students about eye health, facilitated vision screenings and the provision of eyeglasses by a trained optometrist to hundreds of community members, and helped raise awareness on HIV/AIDS alongside my fellow volunteers – a mix of Tanzanian and Canadian students working for the US organisation Unite for Sight.
As a foreigner, my senses were on overdrive. The sight of a begging mother carrying her malnourished child, a defeated old man who walked the streets with the hollow look of a hard life, and a child who sold candy and ice cream next to traffic lights during school hours disturbed me. I was confronted with the gross inequalities of Tanzania when invited into its decadent and luxurious private mansions, enclosed behind high walls. The difference was truly jarring.
One minute I would be enjoying freshly grilled salmon in chandelier-lit dining rooms, and the next I would be approached by sickly and dirt-covered children. Tanzania was not all work and deep thinking about injustice though. I learnt enough Swahili to buy products at the local market. I got addicted to ugali, samosas, and chai, learnt how to dance with sticks at a Gujarati wedding, was charged at by an elephant, saw shooting stars and slept in a tent in Serengeti National Park, and lost my passport and wallet during a snorkelling trip in the emerald green waters of Zanzibar.
My summer in Tanzania made me think long and hard about what I wanted to do with my life. I thought about Law, but through an internship with Save the Children in Washington DC, I found policy making to be a long and arduous process. When I was in Tanzania, people kept asking if I could provide medical help, as it was the service they needed the most. It made me think about a career in healthcare. I began shadowing a doctor at the Duke Eye Centre and found his work fulfilling and impactful. Consequently, I soon began volunteering for Unite for Sight in several countries.
In China, I travelled with an Arab-Israeli optometrist, a German Fulbright scholar, a Chinese law student, and a Wellesley graduate to the rural villages of Henan, the province worst hit by the blood sale scandal that infected many villagers with HIV in the 1990s. I distinctly remember the day when a middle- aged lady followed us to lunch because she desperately wanted to be seen by the optometrist. After conducting a vision screening for her, we provided her with a pair of reading glasses. She was so excited to be able to see again – she jumped up and down and would not stop thanking us!
My experiences helped me decide on a career in medicine. After graduating from Duke in 2007, I applied and was accepted to Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School in Singapore. I am currently a first year student and have continued being involved in community services here. In between studying for quizzes and exams, I lead health screenings and other service activities in the community.
Some people are surprised by my decision to only start medical school now, since most Malaysians enter immediately after high school. However, it is never too late to start medical school – one of my classmates was 32 years old when she enrolled, having earned a PhD in microbiology and worked as a post-doctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore before that. I may be taking a longer route towards my goal, but I certainly have no regrets and am glad to have found my true calling.
Sally Ong Shin Yee graduated from Duke University, USA in 2007. Her volunteer and research activities in Tanzania, China, and Ghana garnered her the Leonard Rieser Fellowship, the Freeman ASSIST Fellowship, and other awards. Sally is currently a first year medical student at Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School, Singapore.
Note: The above entry was written in 2010 for What’s After SPM?, published in 2011. This non-for-profit book project is a collaboration between Leaderonomics and a team of young Malaysians. Click here for details on the project and authors.
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