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School of Medicine discoveries

June 13, 2017

For the Class of 2020’s Jay Pham, persistence and resilience earn a second chance

The pride overflows from the Class of 2020’s Jay Pham as he talks about life on the MCV Campus as a first-year medical student.

“It’s been blissful to finally be here,” says Pham, his smile growing wider. “Pure happiness. I’m happier now than I’ve ever been.”

At 34, he says he’s finally where he’s supposed to be.

The Class of 2020’s Jay Pham and family

The Class of 2020’s Jay Pham and his wife with four of their five children, ages 5, 10, 11 and 14. Not pictured: their newest addition, a 1-year-old boy.

Five years ago, Pham found himself in a much different spot. He was running his family’s business in Seattle, Washington, having dropped out of college years earlier when he became a young father. He was making ends meet for his family but longed for a sense of fulfillment.

“I saw my children, who were so young and just beginning their lives, as a biological miracle,” Pham says. “The process of life is fascinating. They came out pretty perfectly yet so many things could have gone wrong. I wanted to understand this amazingness.”

So in 2012 the then-father of three went back to the University of Washington, where he had been one political science class shy of graduating, to finish his bachelor’s degree and earn his prerequisites. “This time I knew I had it in me. It was four hours round trip to school. I studied on the bus. I studied while brushing my teeth. It’s amazing what time you can find,” he laughs.

Jay Pham (right) and his father in 2012 before Pham started his post-baccalaureate studies at VCU.

Jay Pham (right) and his father in 2012 before Pham started his post-baccalaureate studies at VCU. “He is truly the one man who understands me completely. Perhaps also my greatest supporter.”

A Vietnamese immigrant who moved to the U.S with his parents and three siblings at age 10, Pham’s parents had always dreamed of him becoming a doctor. “Most immigrant families feel the need to be successful. You have to finish school. Be somebody.”

For much of his life, Pham followed this track. A bright high school student, he took community college classes his junior and senior years, earning his associate’s degree at the same time he graduated from high school. But he resisted his parents’ push toward medical school and ultimately abandoned his undergraduate studies. Eventually he found himself far from the life he’d envisioned.

It wasn’t until someone told him, “You made a mistake, but I believe you can recover from it,” that Pham began to reflect on what he could give back to society. “When you don’t have anything, you appreciate your body and your health. In Vietnam, it was how you could get work in the fields. My family was poor — we were on welfare when we came to the United States — but we had our health.

“I want to be the ‘keeper of health’ for the underserved and the poor,” Pham says. “That’s what I was. Now I want to pay it forward to the next generation.”

But while his career path was now clear to Pham, he had more work to do before being accepted into medical school. On the advice of senior associate dean of admissions Michelle Whitehurst-Cook, M’79, he completed VCU’s post-baccalaureate graduate certificate program.

“When I was emailing medical schools, Dr. Whitehurst-Cook was the only one who emailed me back personally and said ‘here are some of the things you could do,’” Pham says. “Other schools sent an auto response but this school, this person, found time to respond. It’s like the kind of doctor I want to be. VCU felt like the right school.”

The Class of 58’s James Darden (left) mentors Jay Pham at CrossOver Clinic

The Class of 58’s James Darden (left) mentors Jay Pham at CrossOver Clinic, Virginia’s largest free clinic where Pham volunteered prior to medical school and continues to give his time.

After earning his certificate and a 4.0 GPA, Pham spent 2016 volunteering at CrossOver Ministry in Richmond under the mentorship of James Darden, M’58. Seeing the patients at CrossOver, Virginia’s largest free clinic serving more than 6,000 individuals, reinforced his desire to become a doctor and work with the underserved.

Whitehurst-Cook says Pham’s persistence and hard work showed he would be successful at VCU and as a physician.

“We saw a real passion in Jay for helping others,” she says. “He is a great role model. He’s learned a lot from his life’s journey and can share it with other students and help others develop cultural sensitivity, not just to his heritage, but to his path to medical school. Resilience is so important.”

Since arriving on campus, Pham’s path has been made a little easier as a recipient of the Lillian H. and Steward R. Moore Scholarship, which partially funds his tuition. “I’m very proud to be worthy of a scholarship and appreciate any amount that I don’t have to borrow. It’s tremendous.”

Providing meaningful scholarship support for students with financial need is the goal of the medical school’s 1838 Campaign. Full and half-tuition scholarships are most urgently needed. They are one of the medical school’s best resources for recruiting and rewarding deserving students like Pham.

The now married father of five is a leader in his class — other students affectionately call him “Pappy”— and in his family, where he and his children often study side-by-side. “It’s easy to tell them to study when they’re always seeing me study,” he laughs. “We are students together.”

It’s not the path to medical school Pham may have chosen, but he’s shared the ups and downs of his journey with his children, ages 1 to 14. He tells them while it’s OK to make mistakes, sometimes there is a better way.

“Do things right the first time,” he says. “Fixing it is hard.”

But as Pham eyes his second of year of medical school, he knows better than most that it’s possible.

By Polly Roberts