Produced by the Department of Media Relations & Publications

Defying the Odds: Lehman Alumna Discusses Her Personal Story of Struggle and Success

August 14, 2009

In this podcast, Dr. Andrea Apolo talks to Lehman students at the College's first-ever honors convocation about the challenges she overcame in order to fulfill her dream of becoming a physician.

8 Minutes 8 Seconds

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"Inspiring Talks" features faculty, guest speakers, and experts discussing their own stories of adversity and success, as well as hopeful new developments, in a variety of fields.

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This is Lehman College graduate Sarah Sumler. Dr. Andrea Apolo received her bachelor's degree in chemistry from Lehman in 1999. Today, she is a medical oncology fellow at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. In this podcast, she talks to Lehman students at the College's first-ever honors convocation about the challenges she overcame in order to fulfill her dream of becoming a physician.



I want to thank Gary Schwartz for inviting me to be here today and be part of this very special event, Lehman's first Honors Convocation. I also graduated an honors student just like you ten years ago, 1999. However, I didn't enter Lehman as an honors student. I entered Lehman through the SEEK Program, under the condition that I would pass the entry-level exams and maintain a minimum G.P.A.

As a matter of fact, my grades in high school were so bad, I didn't even qualify to enter a four-year city university. You see, my family immigrated to New York City from Ecuador when I was a young child. I was very excited since I had heard America is a place where dreams come true, the land of opportunity.

However, soon after moving here, I decided I didn't like this place very much. My mother was a single, immigrant mom who worked long hours in a factory for less than minimum wage to support us. I barely saw her. When she realized the struggle she would have to face to eke out a living, she became concerned for my well-being and sent me back to Ecuador to complete primary school.


When I returned to America at the age of 11, my mother was still working as hard as ever, but by then I was old enough to help. I then decided to work in order to help my mom pay bills and buy food. Unfortunately my priority soon became work and not school. I didn't start thinking about school in a serious way until my senior year in high school.

I wanted to be challenged. I wanted to learn more about the world. Only then did I resolve to attend college. And it was an honor to be the first in my family to do this. I chose Lehman because it was economically feasible. It allowed me to keep my full-time job as a manager in a high-volume restaurant in Manhattan while attending classes.

Tonight, graduates, I have three messages for you. The first one is work hard and be determined. I certainly never thought I'd be working as a Medical Oncology Fellow at Memorial Sloan Kettering, one of the top cancer hospitals in the country. I could never have predicted or planned where I find myself today.


I entered Lehman with determination to succeed. Here, my lifelong interest in science blossomed. I decided to be pre-med since I had always loved science. I was captivated by the study of chemistry, biology, and physics because it answers so many of my questions about the world. The science coursework was demanding and it was hard to study and work 50 hours a week.

I spent countless long hours reading, memorizing, rereading. After my first year, I decided working full-time wasn't gonna give me the time I needed to dedicate to school. It was too hard. I wasn't going to let finances get in my way of me getting where I wanted to be. I went to the library, found a book on scholarships, and I applied to 11 different scholarships.

I spent months writing essays, obtaining letters of recommendation, filling out application after application on a typewriter back then (LAUGHTER). A few months later, I received my first rejection letter. And then they all started coming at once, a total of nine rejections. I was devastated.


Then, six months later, I received a letter from the National Institutes of Health. They had awarded me a scholarship to work at the National Cancer Institute during the summer. The scholarship presented me with $20,000 per year, providing me the financial means to support myself and not have to work while in school.

The second message I have for you graduates, aim high. I took an extra year to graduate Lehman since I changed my major from biology to chemistry. I wanted to take more English classes to perfect my English before starting medical school. After five years, I graduated and was eager to start medical school.

When I got to medical school, I felt completely out of my element, surrounded by Ivy Leaguers. But I worked hard and delivered. I did my best. And before long I was organizing study groups, joining community service teams, and scrubbing in to assist in organ transplants. I loved internal medicine and when I applied for residency, I was afraid I wouldn't get in anywhere since I was competing with highly-talented medical students.


I was humbled when I realized I matched at New York Presbyterian Hospital Cornell, the number one hospital in New York. When I started my residency, I had this inadequate feeling that I didn't really belong there. But after a few months of taking care of patients, I realized I did. I can do this and I'm good at it.

Then, when I applied to fellowship, I knew I wanted to go to Memorial Sloan Kettering. It was my dream to work among the world-renowned faculty and be part of the cutting-edge research that goes on there. When I was one of the few from my residency programs to receive an acceptance to Sloan Kettering, I was elated.

Again, I felt someone had made a huge mistake in the admissions office (LAUGHTER) and I didn't really belong there. I worked hard, learning about cancer treatments and research, conducting clinical trials and presenting my research in national meetings. It just goes to show you, the only boundaries to what you can achieve are the ones you set for yourself.


Always aim high. Don't settle for what you know you can accomplish. Challenge yourself to pursue the impossible and you'll go further than you could ever imagine. My third message to you graduates is stay inspired. Don't forget your long-term goal and why you do what you do.

People often say to me, "It must be so depressing working with cancer patients all day." I don't see it this way. Every day of my life, I feel extremely privileged to meet and treat patients with cancer. Their strength, determination, and optimism are my inspiration. They have taught me to appreciate my health and, most importantly, to appreciate the people around me who love and support me throughout my journey.

When things get hectic, when things seem hard, or even when dreams fall apart, remember what inspired you in the beginning. Why do you do what you do? Whether it's finding better treatments for cancer, becoming a strong voice in the community, advocating for those less fortunate, or even starting your own business, always stay inspired.


When Dr. Gary Schwartz asked me to give this speech today, I again thought to myself, "There must be a mistake." (LAUGHTER) But now I understand that-- why he felt it was important for you to hear my story. It's because I'm just like you. Graduating honors students, you've juggled exams, families, jobs, and challenges to be here today.

This honor you receive today represents a lot of hard work and sacrifice. It's an honor to be celebrating with you. And remember, work hard, be determined, aim high, and always stay inspired. Congratulations to all of you and thank you (APPLAUSE).



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