Articles| From Slušovice to a U.S. medical school,...

From Slušovice to a U.S. medical school, a student fulfils his dream and wins 100,000 Crowns

30. April 2015 - Marek Svoboda has graduated from Columbia University and is now heading for Dartmouth medical school. It may not be obvious, but studying medicine in the U.S. is very difficult for foreigners. Foreign students are accepted by only a few schools, and only a few individuals at that. Marek has made it, thereby also meeting the objective that he set for himself in’s Your Story competition. An award of CZK 100,000 is due to him.

The U.S. education system is not an unknown for Marek Svoboda (24). He has graduated from Columbia University in New York after completing a four-year bachelor’s program, majoring in behavioral neuroscience. However, the curriculum was not narrowly specialized from the beginning; initially, he also had subjects such as literature, French, and history of music and art. The broad range of schoolwork was what attracted him to the U.S. for education.

He tended towards medicine as early as grammar school, but originally wanted to take psychology. “But I increasingly focused on math and sciences, mainly biology. It seemed to me that as a psychiatrist, I could be more effective in what I wanted to do than as a psychologist,” Marek recaps his path to medicine, to which his bachelor’s program was a stepping stone.

Beginnings in the U.S.
His earlier studies at the Open Gate boarding grammar school in the Czech Republic made the early days in the U.S. easier for Marek. “There, I became relatively independent and also got accustomed to being separated from my family,” says Marek, noting that he keeps in touch with his loved ones via Skype once a week. Most of his best friends at the American school were also foreign students. It was not difficult to find and retain friends. “University premises – campuses – are very compact, and students spend all their time together there,” he notes.
For him, America is inspirational in science and technology, but also in its perception of the diversity of cultures and genders. “What I miss outside my home is, in addition to the natural things such as my family, friends and food, our specific sense of humor and also what in fact is our slightly different understanding of friendship,” he says adding that while it is relatively easy to find friends in the States, life-long friends are very rare there. His own experience is that it is the other way around in the Czech Republic. “At first, people are less accessible, but once they become friends the friendship is sort of more genuine.”

At Columbia University, Marek worked in a cognitive neuroscience lab and developed interest in neurology there. He spent one summer working at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, one of the world’s best hospitals for cancer treatment. “I saw there several surgeries on the brain and spinal cord and thought that neurosurgery was an amazing and very difficult discipline – which I take as a great challenge,” says the young man.

Over hurdles towards the dreamt-of goal
But now, he is facing eight years at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College. “The program is composed of four years for an MD, which is the equivalent of the Czech degree abbreviated as MUDr., and another four years for a PhD, i.e. a scientific degree,” explains Marek Svoboda.

Once he graduates, he will be a physician-scientist with an education that allows him to help people directly and also enables him to advance our knowledge in medicine and biology. This is one of the reasons why he wanted to study in the U.S. “There are programs there that directly focus on educating doctors who will move the current frontiers of medicine, thereby creating, for example, new and innovative methods for treatment and medical interventions,” explains Marek.

It is still a long way for him, and it was not easy to set out on it. Marek filed applications with 19 schools (he says that the average is 14 per candidate in the U.S.). The admission process takes approximately one and a half years. Universities not only want to see MCAT results but also require a number of essays, several recommendations, and academic achievements, and are also interested to know about the candidates’ leisure, medical and research activities.

In addition, the schools where one can study medicine are not exactly welcoming to foreigners. “Of the about 140 medical schools in the U.S. only one half accept applications from international students at all, and each of them usually admits only a few such candidates, usually two or three at most,” explains Marek.

Finances are another barrier. A year at school, including subsistence costs, amounts to some $60,000, while scholarships or loans can be obtained from only about ten schools. “A bank loan can only be obtained when a U.S. national is the guarantor, which is not a realistic proposition for me and most of the international students,” says the future medical student. He was lucky in that he would not enroll in only a normal medical program but as a physician-scientist student. The school itself defrays the costs for all of the eight years in almost all of such cases.

Your Story launched the Your Story competition in 2011, targeting young people up to 25. Fifty finalists have qualified on the basis of voting by the jury and the audiences. They will receive an award of CZK 100,000 from for fulfilling the dream of their lives.

Marek was also fortunate during his bachelor’s program when he was sponsored by The Kellner Family Foundation. He made money to meet some of the expenses by working in a lab or as a junior lecturer. Kellner’s foundation again, and also Bakala’s foundation will contribute to his living expenses at the medical school. “For Czech students, these foundations constitute great opportunities to overcome many financial hurdles, thereby making studying abroad genuinely accessible,” observes Marek.

The award of CZK 100,000 by, which he will receive for meeting his objective, i.e. to be admitted to a medical school in the U.S. – will also be financial assistance for him. “The award will help me travel back home, to Slušovice, more often. It will also help me to dedicate some more of my leisure time to the ‘Czechs OUT: Studuj v zahraničí’ [‘Czechs Out: Study Abroad’] project, in which I have been involved together with other Czechs and Slovaks scattered all over the world for the past few years,” Marek names his activities. This voluntary project helps students travel out of the Czech Republic to attend prestigious world universities.

Marek himself experienced first-hand that a dearth of money is the tallest hurdle on the path to schools abroad. “I think that this will be a great way of using this money, thereby helping other students make their dreams come true,” he concludes.

Author | Lenka Poláková

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