FEATURE | Posted July 9, 2014

The will to succeed: Lucy Ogbu-Nwobodo

By the time she was five-years-old, Ogbu had already decided to become a doctor.

Kucy Ogbu-Nwobodo © UC Regents
Lucy Ogbu-Nwobodo

Lucy Ogbu-Nwobodo has that certain spark. Bright, enthusiastic, driven — by the time she was five-years-old, Ogbu had already decided to become a doctor.

But it hasn’t been easy. At 11, Ogbu [for this article, Ogbu-Nwobodo’s surname is shortened to Ogbu] left her native Nigeria to live with a family in Oakland. Her father wanted her to have better opportunities, but her adoptive family had other ideas.

For 13 years, Ogbu lived in an abusive environment. Yet, despite being underfed, living in a garage and being forced to study in secret, she thrived academically. Finishing high school early, Ogbu applied to Harvard, Stanford and Berkeley — and was accepted by all three. But she was not allowed to attend; her Oakland family had let her green card lapse.

Through sheer force of will, she found her way into CSU East Bay. She paid for both her undergraduate and graduate education by selling home baked cookies on campus. But her home had become intolerable and she had to leave. Though liberated to spend hours in the library, her finances were tenuous. For a while, she was homeless.

“By the grace of God, mentors found me,” says Ogbu. “They got me off the streets and helped me get my papers.”

Turning the page

Without these restraints, Ogbu began to soar. She was accepted into the highly competitive UC Davis School of Medicine Postbaccalaureate Program, which helps disadvantaged students pursue medical school. The one-year program combines intensive studying for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) and upper division science classes at UC Davis.

“Not only do you show medical schools you can handle a rigorous academic load, but you also show yourself,” says Ogbu.

But even more than the academic training, the program provided Ogbu something she hadn’t had for many years.

“They gave me a family,” says Ogbu. “They welcomed me with open arms, the faculty, the students, and I really bonded with them. After my year was up, I worked as a peer academic coordinator.”

Medical school

Soon she was applying to medical schools and, once again, she had her pick. But the core value of family drew her to UC Davis.

“If you were always around people who praised you and hugged you and gave you high fives, it might not seem like a big deal,” says Ogbu. “But for me, where I came from, this affection — I could just drown in it.”

Having experienced so much hardship, Ogbu is eager to take full advantage of every opportunity. She is thinking about specializing in neurosurgery, but acknowledges it’s still early in her medical education and that could change. She is also interested in pursuing a master’s in public health as a means to help more people.

Ogbu’s desire to help others has already garnered recognition. Recently, she was honored with the university Chancellor’s Graduate Student Award for “substantive and positive community impact” through her through her work at the Imani Clinic, one of Sacramento’s free community health clinics run by medical students and UC Davis undergraduates.

“I grew up in a rural environment, where people didn’t have access to health care,” says Ogbu, “and when I moved to Oakland, I saw the same kinds of desperation and poverty. Those images from childhood drive me. That’s why I’m here. I am really excited about medicine and getting to do something, to make a significant, palpable difference in poor people’s lives.”