June 26, 2018 — Growing up in Komsomolsk, Ukraine, a mining town on the banks of the Dnipro River, Anastasiya Yakovenko saw her future mapped out in front of her: she would complete her primary and secondary education, and then she would join the labor force. However, when she was a teenager, her father extended an invitation for her to move to the U.S., a twist of fate that would irrevocably change Yakovenko’s future.
“When I was a young girl in Komsomolsk, I didn’t think I would be able to continue my education. My grandparents were farmers; my mother worked in a steel factory,” Yakovenko says. “I’ve had so many opportunities since coming to the U.S. that I wouldn’t have had where I was raised.”
With most of her family still living in Ukraine, Yakovenko is tasked with financing her own education, a burden that is lifted with help from several scholarships from the UF College of Medicine. Yakovenko is the recipient of the Hugh and Mary Wilford Scholarship, the Helen Aubrey Pratt Scholarship and the Cammie Green Ross Scholarship.
“When it comes to paying for my education, I’m supporting myself,” Yakovenko says. “Receiving these scholarships has been a tremendous help.”
Yakovenko says the jury is still out on whether she chose medicine or the profession chose her.
“When I moved to the U.S. in 2009, my new high school had a medical magnet program, and I was able to shadow doctors. Then I was accepted to UF, where I majored in biology. In my second year, I was accepted to the Medical Honors Program. From that point on, my path presented itself,” she says.
During her time at the UF College of Medicine, Yakovenko has had multiple opportunities to experience the practice of medicine across the globe, experiences she considers humbling. The Medical Education and Clinical Exposure International Program took her to the West China School of Medicine in Chengdu, Sichuan province. Here she learned from medical students and assisted in the emergency room distributing supplies.
“That was one of the biggest hospitals in China,” she recalls. “There were people sitting in camping chairs waiting to be seen. The volume was huge — over 200 beds in the emergency room.”
She also spent two summers volunteering at a hospital near her hometown in Ukraine, as well as traveling with a home medical services team that cares for patients in rural areas.
“In Ukraine, resources in medicine are so limited. It’s humbling to see what people can do with the resources they have,” she says. “In the small town I’m from, there’s a traveling physician who works with one nurse and one driver to provide care to all the surrounding areas. There’s no hospital nearby with MRIs and CT scans. Their resources are a stethoscope and the doctor’s hands.”
Yakovenko says her visits abroad remind her of the value of diversity in medical education.
“Everybody brings a different perspective depending on their background. Learning from others, even if you don’t agree with their beliefs, gives you so much more out of the medical education experience,” she says.
Over the last three years, Yakovenko has found the UF College of Medicine to be an environment in which individual students are valued for what makes them unique.
“What I really appreciate about the UF College of Medicine is its ability to embrace diversity,” she says. “They recognize that my classmates and I are so much more than numbers and test scores. UF can appreciate our inner character and personality, and that makes the learning environment that much better.”
After she graduates in May, she plans to pursue a general surgery residency, a field she feels well-suited for.
“I like working with my hands and making quick decisions. I’m also very adaptable,” she says. “My personality is a good match for surgery.”
When Yakovenko looks back on the journey that has brought her to Gainesville, she feels grateful for the support of her family, colleagues and mentors — those who provided her with the possibilities to follow her passion and achieve her goals.
“It’s important to take advantage of opportunities. Don’t let them pass you by,” she says. “In the U.S., you can come from anywhere, and as long as you work hard, you can be successful.”