As National Minority Health Month draws to a close, the John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM) highlights one of our students who is of Filipino-American descent, specifically Ilokano. Emily Erika Acoba-Harrison, MD 2025 candidate at the University of Hawaiʻi (UH) medical school, shares some insight about what it’s like to be a minority in medical school and why that representation is important to her not only as a Filipina but also as a first-generation college and medical student who grew up in Hawaiʻi. The JABSOM Media and Communications (JMAC) Team sat down for a talk-story Q&A with Acoba-Harrison over a cup of boba.
Kumusta (Hello) Emily! First of all, can you tell us about yourself and why do you want to become a physician?
My parents are originally from the Philippines and my aunties and uncles and grandparents, they all speak Ilokano so I’ve been immersed in the language and culture. I’m from the west side, I grew up in Ewa Beach and went to middle school in Waipahu, went to Mid-Pacific Institute and the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa (UH).
The main reason why I wanted to pursue medicine in the first place is because there’s a lot of illness in my family and through that experience, in addition to my experiences as a pre-med, I realized the lack of representation specifically amongst the Filipino community.
There aren’t that many Filipino physicians here. If we take a look at the population here in Hawaii– Filipinos make up 20% of our population but only 5% of our physicians are Filipino. And I was really able to see that with my activities as a pre-med. So I saw myself as filling that need and the importance of not only more representation of Filipinos in healthcare and medicine, but also more culturally competent care in general, not just for Filipinos.
I feel like there were many experiences that kind of just progressively added and reaffirmed my want to become a doctor. But I think the main event that kind of sparked my commitment to go into medicine was when I was in high school when my mom was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer. I’m pretty close to my mom so it was really hard and I went with her to one of her appointments and met her oncologist and her breast surgeon, her name is Dr. Strickland. She’s no longer in Hawaii, but I remember her telling me, “We’re going to do our best to help your mom”. I still remember that to this day and I think having empathy towards not just the patient but also their family is what really inspired me to go into medicine and I’d like to do my best to interweave cultural competence into that empathy when I become a physician.
Today you have 2,094 followers on Instagram as @ee_to_MD. How did you get started on social media and why do you want to share your medical school journey with the world?
I first started my social media accounts on Instagram and TikTok because as a pre-med, I was following a bunch of medical students and doctors. I wanted my social media accounts to be a source of both inspiration and information for others.
When I got into medical school, I thought about making my own social media because I found only two Filipino doctors on social media and I thought, “we need more (representation).”
I think it’s super important that I make it known that I am Filipino and that I’m also a first-generation college graduate and medical student because in my early pre-med years, like in high school and even in early college, because of the lack of representation, they say “you can’t be what you can’t see.”
Describe what it’s like to be a minority in medical school?
I guess to answer that question, first I need to also acknowledge what it was like as a minority pre-med too because to get into medical school, it was very stressful as a minority and sometimes lonely. Because by definition, being a minority means there’s not a whole lot of people like you so it is hard to find people who can relate to you.
In addition to being a minority, I am a first-generation college graduate so I had to build from the ground up. I didn’t have any family connections and I don’t come from a family of doctors, so I had to put myself out there and make the connections myself.
At the beginning of medical school, I suffered a lot from imposter syndrome because I am surrounded by so many bright and smart people and not a whole lot of them are like me or come from similar backgrounds so you start to kind of wonder if you have a place here and if you belong here. But I feel like the deeper that I go into my medical career, I’m becoming more and more sure of my place here..
Can you share some words of encouragement for those who also relate to being a minority as a pre-medical student?
In general for anyone who wants to go into medicine, my advice is to not let setbacks stop you from the overall goal. Originally I was going to take one gap year and then it turned into two gap years because of the COVID-19 pandemic but instead of sulking, I kind of just went with the flow and I eventually got to where I needed to be.
For minority pre-medical students, specifically, it’s so important to find a mentor who understands where you’re coming from. There was definitely a lack of mentorship for me early in my pre-medical journey in high school. It was only when I got connected with the Timpuyog Organization at UH Mānoa that I met Filipinos who were also physicians and that was kind of where I felt like I had a place in medicine because I saw other people who looked like me, doing what I wanted to do.
You are a recipient of the National Health Service Corps Scholarship (NHSC), can you tell us more about that?
Sure, I was very fortunate to receive an NHSC Scholarship. It’s for people who want to go into healthcare (not just physicians), who are committed to going into primary care and serving underserved areas. I actually heard about this scholarship through social media so that was another reason that pushed me to go into social media, to be able to share resources and stuff like that. The scholarship pays for up to four years of tuition and monthly stipends in exchange for years of service in an underserved area.