Turkish Doctor Gets a Residency Match and a Chance for Freedom

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Match Day is the day when the National Resident Matching Program (NRMP) alerts graduate medical students to which residency programs they’ve been accepted into. Residency is required to practice medicine in the United States. It’s an emotional day for all medical students, but especially those who immigrated to study in the U.S., overcoming systemic barriers to achieve their dreams of becoming doctors. 

Seyma, a doctor from Turkey, moved to the U.S. in 2019. She first settled in New Jersey, then relocated to California, finally moving to Palo Alto in 2021 to broaden her professional network. She believed that Stanford University might provide opportunities to work in a clinical setting or to conduct medical research, experience that would be invaluable as she worked to become relicensed as a doctor in the United States. She recalled a recent networking experience with medical students from Stanford. Over coffee, the students described how easy it was to find a paid position as a research assistant. By contrast, Seyma had looked for nearly a year before she was finally able to secure a volunteer position working on brain cancer research. Seyma loves her team, and is thankful for the opportunity, but her experience underscores the many outsized challenges faced by foreign trained doctors despite their equally valid credentials and experience.

Seyma was well accustomed to struggle before she came to the U.S. In Turkey, she was imprisoned along with sixteen other women and their children; doctors, lawyers and teachers who became political prisoners due to their religious affiliation. Seyma shared how in jail she had limited time to go to the prison yard each day; a six-hundred square foot lot with twenty-five foot high walls. She would look up at a plane in the sky and think, “One day this plane will take you to America. Never give up, Seyma.” When Seyma finally did arrive in New York she remembered how she wanted to hug airport security. She explained, “Maybe it is hard to understand without losing your freedom what is the meaning of freedom.”

Once in the U.S., Seyma immediately started preparing for the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE), an exam required to qualify for medical residency in the United States. The USMLE is notoriously difficult, even for American medical graduates studying in their native language. For Seyma, the challenge was compounded by her situation as she was alone in the U.S. with no family, limited financial resources, and a complicated immigration process to navigate. And yet, through perseverance Seyma managed to pass her exams on her first try. 

Her first years in the United States were not marked only by hardship. Seyma was inspired as she observed the hope of pluralism alive in the U.S., with all types of people living and working together in the same community. There was also love. Seyma was introduced to a family friend already here in the U.S. who had also escaped political repression in Turkey. He had resettled in California and was working as a software engineer. After meeting and falling in love, they married, and his support has been invaluable to Seyma as she has navigated the relicensing process. Seyma shared, “Whenever we face a challenge we remind one another, we are free, don’t think so much.”

Seyma also credits her success to the support of Upwardly Global, a non-profit organization that helps immigrants and refugees to rebuild their careers in the United States. The organization reviewed her residency application, paired her with a job coach, and prepared her for residency interviews. In addition to residency support from Upwardly Global, Seyma felt encouraged to see Americans giving voice to the experiences and struggles of people like her, and it motivated her to continue on.

Seyma submitted applications for 270 residency programs. The applications cost her thousands of dollars, a steep price-tag for newcomers that often have little resources or support. She secured two residency interviews that she spent countless hours preparing for, conducting over ten practice interviews with friends and her Upwardly Global job coach. 

Seyma’s choice to pursue medicine was influenced by her family who were frequent volunteers in her home country of Turkey. She remembers watching them helping people and feeling happy and fulfilled.

 “I thought being a doctor meant serving people while at the same time working,” said Seyma. In the end, Seyma believes she is doing what she set out to do. This Spring she secured a residency match in internal medicine and is excited to begin her career here in the U.S. “I love this country,” said Seyma, “and I really want to be part of public service as a doctor. I’m ready to put my knowledge and energy to make people’s lives better because the United States gave me a chance to live with freedom.”

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