Written By Merisha Leak
Growing up in the U.S., but being a native of Nigeria, Justin Okons saw firsthand how the lack of proper medical care could affect a community, particularly his loved ones who remained in the country. While taking in the beauty of Nigeria during his three visits there, he also witnessed the suffering of those who remained. Couple that with the fact that his parents were immigrants to the U.S., Okons realized very quickly the opportunity he had been blessed with, and most importantly, that it would be “disrespectful to not give it his all in everything that he does.”
At a young age, Okons knew he wanted to pursue a career in the field of medicine. At the age of 9, he lost his grandmother to a stroke, a complication he says went undiagnosed and untreated for years, due to lack of healthcare where she lived. This experience, along with the support from his high school science teachers, coaches, his family and others, encouraged him to continue down the path, even when times were difficult.
Currently a third-year medical student at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Okons attests to the necessity of having a good support system.
“Regardless of who it is,” says Okons, “Having someone in my your corner offering a word of encouragement, or even just being there to listen as I vent my frustrations, has been pivotal.”
This type of support has helped to motivate him in his darkest hours, especially during times in which he questioned himself.
Okons is a 2011 graduate of UNC Charlotte with a B.S. degree in Biology. While there he was part of the PRODUCE program, aimed to recruit, retain and graduate underrepresented students majoring in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math disciplines. He was also awarded a scholarship by being recognized as a scholar through the NC Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (NC-LSAMP).
His most recent achievement involves being awarded the United Health/National Medical Fellows Scholarship. He received the award based on his work of conducting several interactive workshops and creating education pamphlets aimed at helping local Philadelphian senior citizens who live in lower socioeconomic areas. His efforts have allowed him to help the elderly better understand their medications, the benefits and side effects of those medications, and to increase overall health care literacy.
Being one of the relative few African-American males in the medical field, Okons knows all too well that the lack of diversity is fairly conspicuous.
“It’s alarming that less than 3% of practicing physicians are young black men” he says.
He believes that lack of exposure, as well as succumbing to the negative words of naysayers, plays a role in the small numbers. He hopes there are more opportunities to encourage young black men to pursue the medical field, especially since he has found through conversations, that unfortunately, many are scared off due to the educational time commitment to becoming a physician, the lack of encouraging role models, or the fact they many just don’t think it’s possible.
His hope is that young black men soon realize that “all things are possible, to doubt their doubts and believe their beliefs, and see the field of medicine as a field that we too can achieve in and do great things in.”
In the future, Okons hopes to be able to give back to the community, something that he is very passionate about. He feels there is no greater deed than helping your neighbor, and takes pride in being able to help others. He donates his time at homeless shelters, mentors at a Boys & Girls Club and volunteers at senior centers. Upon graduating from medical school, he plans to specialize in emergency medicine – an area he is interested in because of the dynamic of the environment, and being ready to treat anyone who comes through the doors at a moment’s notice.
Through his work, Okons hopes to leave a lasting impact – one where the lives around him are improved for the better.
“I hope that my work as a physician will help heal people of some of their health burdens and aid in them living a long, happy, fulfilling and productive life,” says Okons. “While doing so, I hope to inspire the next generation of young doctors, to influence them to strive for greatness, and to always remain compassionate to the stories and plights of their patients.”
The My Brother’s Keeper Scholarship at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte is an endowment fund targeted to Black males majoring in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields at UNCC. The "What They See Is What They'll Be" blog series, adopted from the motto of 100 Black Men of America, is a bi-weekly blog series featuring personal stories of Black men from the UNCC community who are actively engaged in those fields. The goal of the series is to serve as a source of information and inspiration to others aspiring to follow similar career paths. Learn more at www.unccmybrotherskeeper.org.