Postbac Premed Graduate Excels as a Model Student
“I never thought there was a limit in my path. I could do both,” said Olivia Anakwe ‘23PBPM, who from a young age realized that she wanted to be both a doctor and a model. Anakwe was scouted at a restaurant the summer after her freshman year of college as a pre-medical student and has been working as a professional model for eight years since then. “I was approached in a restaurant and my life completely changed,” she said. Living between New York City and Europe, she participated in numerous fashion weeks and modeled for high fashion editorials.
As a Columbia GS student in the Postbac Premed Program, she has continued her modeling career, shifting to high fashion commercial work: “I took this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be welcomed into the world of fashion and continued to balance that with my studies,” she said.
Anakwe earned her Bachelor’s degree in psychology with a minor in history from Pace University, although she decided to leave the pre-medical track because of the demanding schedule and lifestyle changes required for her modeling career. She never abandoned her goal of becoming a doctor, however, and applied to the Postbac Premed Program after hearing about the positive experiences of friends of hers completing the program.
“It was the onset of the pandemic when everything for once truly slowed down. That allowed me to reflect on my next steps, as well as what was needed in the future of medicine,” she said of her decision to apply.
“I'm coming from a world of fashion and a background in that, so I wanted to see how a program could support me in such a rigorous environment with the sciences and how I could both keep that part of myself, but also know that I'm pursuing this path,” she said. “I felt like GS was like a really great home for me.”
“You might feel like your paths don’t connect or you are going through a total career change, but every path literally helps you. A lot of what I learned through fashion, through living in other countries, and interacting with different people, I use so much of that in this program and I'm going to use so much of that in medicine.”
With the guidance of numerous deans at GS, especially Assistant Dean of Students Limary Carrasquillo, Anakwe was able to set her goals and understand the strength that her nontraditional background provided her. “You might feel like your paths don’t connect or you are going through a total career change, but every path literally helps you,” she said. “A lot of what I learned through fashion, through living in other countries, and interacting with different people, I use so much of that in this program and I'm going to use so much of that in medicine.”
At GS, she served as the Postbac Premed Student Council Vice President of Medical School Fair Operations. Hosting the medical school fair in-person for the first time in three years was one of her proudest accomplishments. “I am just so proud of the teamwork, the community of students who joined us, and the events we were able to hold; it was a huge success and I will never forget it!” she said.
She found a community of support and friendship during the experience, both with student organizers such as Talia Adler and Hannah Ressinger, and with GS staff including Senior Assistant Dean of Students Allen and Assistant Director of Multicultural and Social Justice Initiatives Ashley Moody-Astwood.
This diverse community was valuable to her academic success as well. “It's what really gets us through this program, being able to work together,” she said.
Anakwe formed study groups with other students and often sought advice from alumni, professors, and administrators. In particular, she thanked Professor Philip Michael Tuts of the Department of Physics, Professor Ruben Savizky and Dr. Talha Siddiqui of the Department of Chemistry, and Dr. Karen Phillips for their impact on her educational experience. “Each one of them showed me extra care and time throughout their courses and I really enjoyed the way I was able to grow in a way that allowed me to study and learn on a deeper level,” she said.
"Push yourself, but to the point where you can accept the hurdles that you're going to take. It’s okay to fail and get back up again. But just know there are people here to support you."
Anakwe also found support from her mentor, interventional cardiologist and Vice Chair of Faculty Development focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the Department of Medicine Dr. Christopher Irobunda, at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center, in addition to Project STAY staff Dr. Cohall, Rene Cohall, Nydia Rodriguez, and Kayleigh Barrett with whom she worked as a health educator. “Project STAY, which is affiliated with Columbia and New York Presbyterian, has made one of the biggest impacts on my pathway to medicine,” she reflected.
Post-graduation, Anakwe will apply to medical schools and explore her different interests in the medical field. Her undergraduate thesis focused on psychodermatology, a field that explores the relationship between the mind and the skin, and she has since had the opportunity to do additional research in the dermatology field. “I’m really drawn towards it,” she said, “but definitely open towards all of the other specialties.”
As she moves on to her next steps in her career, it is also important to Anakwe to be involved in efforts to support underrepresented students. Whether through mentoring or other programs, she hopes to continue the work she was involved in as a leader of the Social Justice Medicine Club and member of the Underrepresented in Medicine Group at Columbia.
Anakwe’s Postbac experience has taught her how to accept challenges and make the best use of the supportive community around her. “I have this thing about never, never giving up, but also giving yourself grace, because this is going to be such a transition for you,” she advised future Postbac students. “Just really push yourself, but to the point where you can accept the hurdles that you're going to take. It’s okay to fail and get back up again. But just know there are people here to support you. It’s just about seeking out that support and also voicing that you are struggling.”