GREENSBORO — Lily Zerihun got her first medical school acceptance letter from the Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem on Nov. 15. It started: “The Committee on Admissions is pleased to offer you a place …”
By Christmas, Zerihun, a native of Greensboro, had been accepted by George Washington University in D.C. (“Congratulations!”) and five other schools.
On March 8, Zerihun got her final acceptance letter from Yale University, which wrote: “On behalf of the Committee on Admission …”
Zerihun had beaten the odds and then some. Most U.S. medical schools accept fewer than 10 percent of their applicants. Prospective doctors are lucky to get into one or two medical schools. A majority of applicants are rejected by every med school to which they apply.
And Zerihun? She got into 11 medical schools.
When Zerihun got her first acceptance letter — she was so nervous she made a friend open the email from Wake Forest — “it was crazy. I almost started crying,” she said. “It was the culmination of everything I was working for.”
Ten acceptance letters later, Zerihun added, “The shock factor was definitely still there. … The shock factor came back every time.”
Zerihun, who turned 23 last month, embraced science at an early age. Her father, a chemist, would return from chemistry conferences with refrigerator magnets that had the periodic table printed on them.
By age 3, Zerihun had memorized the first 20 elements, recalled her father, Zerihun Assefa, the chairman of the chemistry department at N.C. A&T. By the time she turned 7, she could sit and read books for hours at a time.
“She had amazing patience and concentration,” Assefa said.
Zerihun and her family moved to Greensboro from Tennessee before she started sixth grade. (Her mother, Annie Eshete, is an accountant; her younger brother, Ezra Zerihun, will graduate from N.C. State next weekend with a computer science degree.)
During high school — she attended the Early College at Guilford — she started thinking seriously about medical school after a local doctor spoke to the teen health careers club she had joined.
“That was the first time I had really seen a doctor,” Zerihun said. “That was the first time I really understood what the path to medicine looked like.”
That path took her to Moses Cone Hospital, where she volunteered in the pediatric ward, and to the Wake Forest School of Medicine, where she worked the summer after high school in the lab of the school’s Cardiovascular Sciences Center.
Then she went off to Duke University, where she majored in biology and global health. She graduated in 2016 with a grade-point average of 3.93 on a 4-point scale. Her lone B came in Neuroscience 101, during the first semester of her freshman year.
“At the time, I didn’t feel too stressed out about it,” Zerihun said with a shrug. “I was just starting college.”
She said she always had loved school, but she found her passion in travel. After her sophomore year, she spent three weeks studying religious diversity in Ethiopia, where her parents had grown up. After that, it was off to Haiti for eight weeks, where she collected data on hypertension and surveyed local residents about their willingness to get the HPV vaccine.
As a junior, she spent a semester studying in England and the next summer in India, where she wrote case studies about the effect that water tanks and sand dams had on sanitation and health in rural villages.
In India, she talked to women and girls who spent up to six hours each day collecting water for their families.
“It was empowering for me to get to talk to a lot of women … and to see what it looks like to have a sustainable project that can make a difference and is run by locals,” Zerihun said.
Back at Duke for her senior year, Zerihun made up her mind to apply to medical school. But first she wanted a break. Taking a gap year meant finding a job, so Zerihun returned to the cardiovascular center at Wake Forest’s medical school.
TanYa Gwathmey, an assistant professor of surgery, supervised Zerihun during her summer internship in 2012. She said she was delighted to see Zerihun’s application for the post-graduate program come across her desk.
“As young as Lily is, she’s a very focused individual who’s committed to her work and does her work with excellence,” Gwathmey said. “She is the student that every professor longs to know.”
During her gap year, Zerihun applied to 21 medical schools. Ten schools turned her down. (She declined interviews at seven schools, which meant a rejection letter.) But she was accepted at 11, a remarkable number that included all four of North Carolina’s medical schools as well as Northwestern and Mount Sinai in Chicago and Emory in Atlanta.
She narrowed her final choice to two New York schools, New York University and Columbia University. Although NYU offered her a full scholarship, she picked Columbia for its strong global health program.
Eventually, she said she hopes to work as a doctor in underserved communities like the ones she saw firsthand on her trips overseas, where doctors are scarce and health care is often poor.
“It’s always been in the back of my mind to want to go back to communities my family came from and give back with the resources I’ve been able to have in my life,” Zerihun said.
“I feel committed to being able to use these opportunities and giving back to people who don’t necessarily have a chance.”