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Joyce Sackey-Acheampong, M.D. '89: In good faith
At 14, Dr. Joyce Sackey- Acheampong made a decision that would change her life. It was the early 1970s, and a preacher was giving a talk at the all-girls boarding school she attended in rural Ghana. His words affected her deeply, and she decided that day to make her faith an integral part of her life. When the preacher called out to the audience, "If you've never invited Christ into your life, come forward and we will pray for you," she answered his call.
"I don't recall a feeling of elation or being overwhelmed," says Sackey, who is now an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. "It was a simple step of faith—literally and figuratively— that marked the beginning of a new life journey for me." From then on, she says, for her "there was no such thing as having your faith be separate from your life."
As part of her spiritual awakening, Sackey joined a club at her school called the First Aid Society because she wanted to do "good works." The society visited neighboring villages to hand out nutritional supplements, bandage wounds, and treat chronic ulcers—"very simple things" that high-school students could do, as she recalls. "That was a pivotal time for me," she says. "Recognizing that Ghana was not uniform and not everybody had access to hospitals and doctors like I had when I was in the capital, and to realize that these people were miles and miles and miles away from the nearest hospital and, for them, the first person they were seeing who could actually attempt to help was a high school student—it was just amazing to me."
Growing up in Accra, Ghana's capital, Sackey lived a relatively comfortable life. Her mother, an orphan who never finished high school, worked as a seamstress and owned a small fabric shop. Sackey's father, who came from a wealthy family, went to the United States to earn his M.B.A. shortly after marrying. "Right from the beginning," says Sackey, "there were tensions in terms of their backgrounds." Sackey's parents separated when she was a baby, but she remained close to her father's family, who always included her in family gatherings. They even offered to send her to the U.S. for high school, but her mother refused to let her go. Instead, Sackey's mother pushed her to apply to the most prestigious schools in Ghana—"all the top-notch schools," says Sackey, who received a full scholarship to attend Aburi Girls'
Secondary School, where she found her faith and her life's work.
"I remember standing there," says Sackey of one of her first visits to a village with the First Aid Society, "and checking somebody's chronic ulcer or something . . . and saying to myself, 'I love science. Wouldn't it be nice—a natural combination—to become a physician and someday come back and attend to the needs of these villagers?'"
Sackey began collecting a list of U.S. colleges, since she and her parents had always planned for her to go to the United States at some point to be closer to her father. She couldn't afford the application fees, though, so she applied only to schools that agreed to waive the fee—which included Dartmouth College. When Dartmouth offered her a full scholarship, she accepted.
At Dartmouth, Sackey majored in biology and psychology, yet still had time to explore other subjects, like literature, history, and languages. In Ghana, she had focused only on science. "I felt like the world was open to me all of a sudden," she recalls. She began looking beyond Hanover, N.H., and decided she'd
like to attend medical school elsewhere— in an urban and perhaps warmer location.
But a letter she received late in her senior year from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) stymied those plans. Sackey had come to the United States on a student visa and, during college, had also applied for permanent residency. The two processes were incompatible, the INS informed her, and since she was applying for permanent residency, her student visa could not be extended. "Suddenly I was without status," Sackey remembers. And without residency, she also was not eligible for federal loans to pay for medical school. Not sure if she would be able to stay in the U.S. as she'd hoped, Sackey went to talk to the dean of Dartmouth Medical School. She remembers him asking how long she thought it would take to be granted residency. "I don't know," she said. "Things could be done by second semester of medical school, [but] things could take longer than that." DMS accepted Sackey on a conditional basis.
The Medical School also put together a financial aid package for her and helped her find housing. "I didn't have enough
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Jennifer Durgin is the senior writer for Dartmouth Medicine magazine.