By Joe Pinchot
Herald Staff Writer
Most people who want to attend medical school apply during their undergraduate years, just after they get a four-year degree or later, if they are changing careers, said Kelli Kennedy, director of admission for Drexel University, Philadelphia.
But, for Sonya Selvaraj, who graduates June 7 from Hickory High School, waiting that long was too much of a gamble.
Sonya, 18, applied to a number of medical schools under early entrance programs, and has been accepted by Drexel to start her medical studies in 2017, provided she meets a set of benchmarks.
Having that seat waiting for her has taken a load off her shoulders, she said. She expects to be able to enjoy her undergraduate studies and extracurricular activities because she does not have to worry whether she will be able to get into med school, she said.
While the application process was challenging – she had to apply to undergraduate schools at the same time – it was worth it, she said. Sonya hopes that her success will spur others to follow a similar path.
“If they know about it, they can do it and achieve it,” she said. “The application process is grueling, but I think anyone can do this if they really want to.”
Lindsay Ramage, Hickory’s gifted teacher, said she is not surprised that Sonya scored a med school slot out of high school.
“When I met Sonya in ninth grade, she already knew she wanted to go into one of these programs,” said Ramage, who wants to have younger students with an interest in medicine talk about their hopes with Sonya.
Sonya is taking advantage of a linkage agreement Drexel has with Robert Morris University, where Sonya has a full-ride scholarship for her undergrad studies, and Allegheny General Hospital, Pittsburgh, said Kelli Kennedy, director for admissions at Drexel.
The idea behind the program is to attract more general medicine students who would serve in rural and semi-rural areas, according to the Drexel website.
The academic requirements are tough, but not too tough to prevent students from pursuing an undergraduate liberal arts education.
“We’re dealing with students who are highly interested in medicine,” Kennedy said. “They are highly qualified, very gifted students. The students that come from these programs, they typically do well at the medical school. They have tight ties to their home areas.”
At least 40 medical schools have such programs, but the number of high school students accepted are a fraction of the total applicants, Kennedy said.
Sonya, the daughter of Suguna and Chikkanna Selvaraj, both math teachers at Pennsylvania State University, Shenango Campus, Sharon, said she looked at bigger medical schools, but chose Drexel because she expects more individual attention from her teachers.
A native of India who has dual India-U.S. citizenship, Sonya plans to become a radiologist, someone who diagnoses and treats disease through the use of visualization tools, such as x-rays and ultrasounds.
“It’s so much more interesting that just going in and going out,” she said, comparing radiology to a doctor with office hours seeing patients.
“There are so many more advancements coming, and the technology is changing so fast it’s a growing a field,” she said. “I want to be a part of something that is new, and I would see something new every day.”
Sonya showed an early interest in science, and credits her pediatrician, Dr. Cheryl Duffy, with promoting those interests by preparing medical trivia questions for her and explaining why she was getting ear infections.
“She kind of fed my interest in terms of telling me new things every time I went to her,” Sonya said. “I really loved going to the pediatrician.”
Sonya would borrow science books from the library to further her knowledge, and has volunteered at the hospital of Sharon Regional Health System.
Sonya attended 14 undergraduate school interviews and four med school interviews. She credited Hickory with putting an emphasis on public speaking and communication skills throughout its classes, training that she said made her comfortable during what she otherwise felt were “harsh days” during the interview process.
Aside from her volunteer work, Sonya is assisting her chemistry teacher, Dr. David Lineman, who is helping a Youngstown State University student examine soil samples from local rivers for cancer-causing agents.
“I really take pride in being a part of a big thing that they’re doing,” Sonya said.
Away from science, Sonya taught herself piano and sings in the concert and show choirs.
“These things are what kept me sane through high school,” she said of music. “It keeps me relaxed.”