Persistence rewarded

Embracing dreams and aspirations

A first-generation student finds her path to serving the underserved

Jessica Zimmer arrived at Ohio State, her dream school, in August 2016 with visions of becoming a doctor.

As a first-generation student with no physicians in the family, she saw a difficult road ahead. Zimmer did not, however, see herself struggling as much as she did her first semester.

Thoroughly frustrated with general chemistry, Zimmer finally broke down during Senior Lecturer Rosemary Bartoszek-Loza’s office hours.

“I started crying in front of everyone. I didn’t know what I was doing,” said Zimmer, who graduated from London High School, a small, rural school. “I had never failed anything. I just felt really lost.”

Bartoszek-Loza took Zimmer under her wing, teaching her how to prepare and learn at the university level.

“At a big university like Ohio State, that took me by surprise — that a professor would do that,” Zimmer said. “She knew I needed a path, someone to lift me up. Her help served me further than knowing atoms or the periodic table.”

Zimmer is now a fourth year pre-med student majoring in biology and Spanish with a resume packed full of internships, volunteering, research, study abroad, reference letters and affiliations. This past spring, she nailed her MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) and spent the summer applying to 20 medical schools including Ohio State’s all over the country.

She’s even a chemistry tutor.

As a first-generation student – a student from a family in which neither parent earned a four-year bachelor’s degree – who began her Ohio State experience humbled, she said her success has come from building relationships and getting involved.

Both started before she attended her first class.


So many places to get involved, so many rewards through involvement

Prior to her first semester, Zimmer signed up to receive emails through the Undergraduate Research Office. One lab opportunity at the Endocrinology Research Associates caught her eye. After surprising herself by getting the internship, she began doing research for Dr. Elena Alexia Christofides ’91, ’95 MD.

Along with gaining research experience, Christofides paid for and helped Zimmer gain her Phlebotomy Certification allowing her to draw blood. Zimmer is currently the clinical research coordinator for the lab, supervising eight college interns.

“(Christofides) taught me so much about the medical school process,” she said. “I’ve shadowed her since my freshman year and learned so much about the patient-doctor relationship and the pre-med track.”

Among the many clubs and organizations Zimmer joined included the medical fraternity Phi Delta Epsilon, which helped her connect with other pre-med and med school students and learn more about Ohio State’s resources. It was there she was introduced to La Clinica Latina, a free student-run medical clinic for the Spanish-speaking community where Zimmer began volunteering in 2017.

“I’m so grateful for finding that clinic,” said Zimmer, the undergraduate lab coordinator at La Clinica Latina. “It’s my absolute passion.”

Zimmer’s ability to speak fluent Spanish and communicate medical terminology at the clinic improved vastly after she took advantage of a study abroad opportunity through the Spanish department. In the summer of 2018, she traveled to Valparaiso, Chile, to work as a clinic volunteer at Consultorio Esperanza, a government hospital located in an impoverished area. There, Zimmer assisted health professionals.

“It was an immersion and it gave me so much confidence in my fluency,” Zimmer said.

La Clinica Latina and her study abroad opportunity brought Zimmer face-to-face with physicians who embody what she hopes to become: a doctor who serves the underserved. Her goal is to become an obstetrician to women who struggle with language and health care barriers.

“Minority communities have a much higher infant mortality rate and that’s unacceptable,” Zimmer said. “Imagine how hard it is to be an immigrant in an English-speaking world, to have nowhere to turn. Because of the language barrier, they don’t think they can seek help. I want to help these women get the resources they need, to have healthier babies. I want to make a difference for them."

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Student-run clinic provides health care to Latinx community

Inside the exam room at La Clinica Latina, Jessica Zimmer switched seamlessly between Spanish and English as translator between Dr. Summit Shah and his patient. A few moments later, Zimmer was drawing the patient’s blood for a blood sugar check.

All signs were good. The patient walked out smiling with her two daughters. It was her first visit to a doctor’s office in a long time. Between language and health care access barriers, it’s a common refrain Zimmer and Shah hear on Tuesday nights at La Clinica Latina.

“We see many patients who have gone months or years without necessary essential medication,” said Dr. Shah ’05, ’10 MPH, ’10 MD, La Clinica Latina’s physician advisor since 2015 and an assistant professor in Ohio State’s College of Medicine.

The free student-run clinic, part of the Columbus Free Clinic system, is run in conjunction with Ohio State and the Ohio Latino Health Network.

It’s a place Zimmer found mentors and a path.

Shortly after she started at the clinic in the fall of 2017, Zimmer who draws blood, takes vital signs and performs lab testing helped a patient get control of his diabetes.

“He had been afraid to go to the doctor because he didn’t think they’d understand him,” said Zimmer, who aspires to be an Ob/Gyn in underserved communities. “Each time he came to see us, he looked better, his numbers were better, he felt better. Our clinic being here one night a week changed his life.

“It showed me what medicine could do. And I want to provide that safe haven.”

Zimmer said Shah is the “embodiment” of what she wants to be, treating the underserved. Shah said Zimmer embodies what makes volunteers at the clinic successful.

“She’s a highly energetic and motivated individual who demonstrates genuine compassion and empathy for those who need help,” he said. “For students like Jessica, this is an invaluable experience both from a clinical exposure standpoint but also from a working with the underserved population standpoint. It helps individuals build compassion and empathy. That is a critical component of a career in medicine.”

Shah often works directly with students like Zimmer and allows them to shadow. Other mentorships also happen because of the collaborative spirit at the clinic along with the diversity of educational levels and disciplines.

Zimmer developed a close working relationship with Tania Gennell ’19 MD, who is currently doing her residency in New York. Zimmer said La Clinica Latina provides essential experiences and relationships many first-generation pre-med students don’t get.

Shah was happy to hear that.

“Sometimes the hierarchy in medicine can be intimidating because it’s such a long journey,” he said. “But I hope by creating a relatively down to earth atmosphere, anyone at any level feels welcome to provide ideas and engage with the singular goal of providing better care to the underserved population.

“I’m happy Jessica is one of those individuals who has taken advantage of that. And it’s left a good mark."

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Whether you're helping to provide medical care for underserved populations or assisting young people in reaching their potential, you'll find the support to make it happen at Ohio State. Dennis Kibalama is another student who found his place at Ohio State.

Read Dennis's Story View All Stories