Dr. Joya Keys Journey To Becoming A Doctor

Dr. Joya Keys FAITH story

I grew up on 36th street off of St. Clair and we lived next door to my grandmother. I have always appreciated how the people of East St. Louis were always willing to believe in us as children. We hear so much bad about the city, but I experienced so much good. The encouragement from those around me was instrumental in initiating a challenging but rewarding path to practicing medicine. 

My journey to becoming a doctor was far from easy. There were times that I thought I wouldn't make it and many times that I wanted to give up. Growing up, I didn't know anyone personally who was a doctor so the dream felt out of reach at times.

Again, I will say, growing up in East St. Louis I always felt the support of my community.  I went to A. M. Jackson Math and Science Academy and we had some of the most inspiring and supportive teachers you could have. I remember standing up in 3rd grade and saying I wanted to be the first black woman president of the United States when I grew up. My teacher, Mrs. Barbara Dennis, looked at me as if I hadn’t said anything out of the norm.

I remember in high school being on the track team and participating in the “Winning in Life” program. This program, created by Olympian Jackie Joyner Kersee, consisted of her leading discussions about setting goals both on and off the track. Having a world-class Olympian sitting in on conversations with us as 16 and 17-year-old girls is something I will always cherish.

Once my aspirations changed from future US president to Olympian to Medical Doctor, I kept that same confidence that had been built over the years from the support of my village. One summer, I participated in a summer program through East St. Louis Sr. High at SIU-Carbondale called Med Prep. In the program, we were able to shadow medical students and also do some research into the medical field. Though it was a great experience, it was one of my first indicators of how hard the medical journey might be. 

After high school, I went to Jackson State University in Jackson, MS where I studied Physics. I was able to secure acceptance to a small medical school my senior year of college and I felt that all of my goals were falling into place. I figured medical school would be hard but I would buckle down and succeed as I had many other times before. Little did I know the challenging journey that was waiting for me.

The first day of medical school during orientation one of our professors used an analogy to describe medical school. He said, “medical school is like drinking water. Everyone can drink water, but imagine drinking water from an open fire hydrant. The information is understandable but there will be a lot of it coming at you at once”. 

Within the first few months of medical school, I was drowning under the pressure of all that information coming at me at once. It was the first time I felt like I could study all day and night for weeks and still fail a test. It seemed that no matter what I did, I just couldn’t do enough to excel in my classes. I was feeling completely overwhelmed. By the end of the first semester I had failed 4 classes. At that point, I had to sit before the board to determine if I could stay in school or not. 

At the board meeting, I was told that I had failed too many classes and that I would be dismissed from school. I was absolutely devastated. How could something that I had worked so hard for have slipped out of my grasp? I thought to myself, where do I go from here? What will my friends, family, and community think? These were all questions that I had to deal with at that moment. I was hurt, embarrassed, and felt broken.

Before I left, I spoke to the Dean of the school. He told me that he saw how hard I worked and studied. He remembered the times that I reached out for help and stayed for extra sessions. He told me to go home and gain some more knowledge of the medical field. He said if I can show that I’ve put in work with gaining more medical knowledge he would personally write a letter for me to get back in school. This was a small glimpse of hope in what seemed like a completely dark situation. 

I drove home devastated but determined. For a few weeks, I could barely get out of bed. I was so embarrassed by what happened I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know if I should pivot and try something new or continue down the path where I had just failed. After some time of reflection, I decided I was going to try to get back into school. I enrolled in some classes at a local college and took on a few jobs here and there. I applied into some new programs and was rejected by them all. 

I ended up looking on the website for the school I had just left and saw a new Masters Program was being added that centered around medical courses. I ended up applying into that program and getting in. I worked hard in that program and at the end of the program, I re-applied to medical school and was accepted. The second time around, I had more medical knowledge and was able to keep up in the course work. I feel like I have an internal drive to succeed. I had to lean on my FAITH and get direction from God. There were times that I wanted to give up or thought I wouldn't make it. With God’s help I was able to finish school. My FAITH grew so much and it was greater than it had ever been. 

I would encourage others who are facing adversity in moving forward in their calling with this verse my mom would say to encourage me when I would face difficulties at different points with school. She would say “If God delivered you before, he can and will do it again”. 

“The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine. Saul said to David, “Go, and the Lord be with you.”’ -1 Samuel 17:37 NIV

FAITH Story By: Dr. Joya Keys
Follow Joya on Instagram. 
Photo By: Mena Darre
Photo By: Mena Darre

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