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They got into top US medical schools. Now they help other foreigners do the same

F-1 Doctors
F-1 Doctors is an online resource for international medical students, by international medical students. Source: National Cancer Institute

Medical school is no easy feat, especially when you’re studying in a foreign country. So when Azan Zahir Virji, Benjamin Andres Gallo Marin, and Ghazal Aghagoli connected online over this shared struggle, they knew they had to play a part in easing it for others. That’s how F-1 Doctors came to be.

This student-led organisation is a free mentorship initiative for international applicants of the medical degree (MD), Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD), or residency programmes in the US. Pre-meds can access mentorship and guidance from reliable resources with ease online. Co-founder Virji, a Tanzanian student at Harvard Medical School, shares via e-mail that F-1 Doctors has come a long way in a short time — it now has 90 mentors from over 30 countries and has helped over 200 students collectively.

F-1 Doctors

Harvard student Azan Virji from Tanzania is one of the founders of F-1 Doctors, which offers free mentorship and advice for international students who want to get into medical school in the US. Source: Azan Virji

Marin, a Brown University student from Nicaragua, attributes this to the fact that the mentorship programme is simple, fast, and highly effective. “A student is able to select the mentor that they wish to speak to by scrolling through the mentor profiles, reading their biographies, and filling an electronic form specific to a given mentor. Next, the mentor is notified via email that a student would like to speak with them. If a mentor determines that they have availability to provide mentorship, they proceed to contact the student directly via email to select a time to meet that is mutually convenient,” he explains.

What advice do students seek?

Earnestly enough, international students who approach F-1 Doctors are mostly looking for words of encouragement from those who have successfully gotten into medical school, dental school, or a residency programme. Others are looking for structured advice on how to improve their competitiveness for admission; for example, should they pursue a post-baccalaureate programme or go to graduate school? Then there’s the question of funding: what scholarships or bursaries are international students eligible for, if any?

“Every student has unique needs that only their specific chosen mentor can address. There are international students at many different stages of their journey — college, taking gap years, working, pursuing graduate school, evaluating options — and as such having diversity in experiences from our mentors has been key to ensure that each person seeking mentorship can have their questions answered and receive the specific guidance that they need,” Marin explains.

F-1 Doctors

Benjamin Andres Gallo Marin, Brown student from Nicaragua, believes there is a mentor for every type of student at F-1 Doctors. Source: Benjamin Andres Gallo Marin

Why are US medical schools extra competitive for international students?

Getting admissions advice from those who have been accepted is a no-brainer. Not only have the mentors of F-1 Doctors navigated the same path you want to take, but with the headstart, they’ve also fleshed out tips and perspectives on the application process. Besides one-on-one mentorship, you can also learn from the webinars this organisation hosts.

In our experience, the only challenge that comes with being an international applicant is the limited number of schools you can apply to,” Virji shares. “Only 49 of the 141 medical schools in the country accept non-US citizens. Since most of these schools happen to be the top schools in the country, the application process is competitive for international applicants.” 

On the bright side, the widely-perpetuated idea that US health programmes do not offer financial aid is not entirely true. “While many schools do require non-US citizens to take out loans and show proof of funding for four years of school, others offer students financial help either in the form of institutional loans (low-interest rate and deferred payment) or scholarships (merit-based or need-based). To demonstrate which schools do this, we created an online Excel document with a list of all medical schools international applicants can apply to and their respective financial aid policies,” Virji says.

Who funds F-1 Doctors?

F-1 Doctors is based in Brown University, where its very first chapter was recognised at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. This is also the main source of the organisation’s funding.

Its main commodity may be the mentors spread across medical schools in the US, but F-1 Doctors has also established partnerships with other organisations that share its mission. This includes Prescribe it Forward, a newly formed mentorship group for students applying to US medical school, and Uplift, an organisation that creates a guide for first-generation, low-income students applying to US medical schools. On social media, F-1 Doctors spread the message of their work through collaborations with Just Moved to Yankee and Africa International Circle.

 

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Who can get involved?

If you are a medical student, mentoring is a great way to give back during these restricted times. “Many of us have truly seen the role mentorship has played in our careers. Being a mentor at F-1 Doctors not only allows you to be a part of our community but also provides you with an opportunity to make an impact in the lives of international students who also wish to attend health professional programs in the US,” Virji shares.

He adds, “Immigrant physicians make up almost 28% of all physicians and 24% of all dentists in the US. The last few months however have been quite challenging for international students when it comes to immigration. Moving forward, we aspire to see a future where international students can pursue their American Dream and find all the support they need to enrol at health professional programmes across the country.”

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