Brooklyn, NY

This Brooklyn Native Founded A Non-Profit To Help 1001 Students From Underserved Communities Get Essential Books

Jeryl Brunner

Ever since she was a little girl Sotonye Douglas wanted to be a doctor. But there weren’t any doctors in her family. “And we didn’t live in the nicest part of Brooklyn so there weren’t even any doctors in my neighborhood,” says Douglas who is the daughter of a Jamaican mother and a Nigerian father and a first generation American.

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Sotonye Douglas (Photo By Morgan Sharick)

Douglas always had a creative mind and a love for art. “Art drew me to science and medicine tied it all together,” shares Douglas. During junior high school she participated in New York City Department of Education’s Gifted and Talented Program. While there she got a crash course in human anatomy.

"My love for science made me a perfect fit. This interaction with the structures inside the human body was incredible,” she says. “To me, the organ models were art sculptures. The colors were vibrant and like a well-composed painting. I was captivated. And this combination of art and anatomy developed into a curiosity for medicine.”

When she was fourteen Douglas met Dr. Rhonda Cambridge, the first African American female physician that Douglas had ever met. Douglas loved how Dr. Cambridge connected with her patients and understood their needs. “She constantly reminded them that optimizing their health was paramount to leading productive lives. She was compassionate, trustworthy and dedicated. I could tell her heart was in medicine and the education she shared with me,” she shares. For Douglas it also signaled that maybe she could follow her dream of becoming a doctor. “Meeting her was confirmation: You can do this. This is what you want, and it’s going to happen,” she explains.

In that same year, Douglas was also selected for the Media Lab initiative with Urban Arts Partnership. The organization is committed to enriching the lives of inner-city youth with art.

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The Media Lab at The Tribeca Film Festival (Photo by Joe Corrigon)

At Urban Arts Douglas met Anna Strout who led the social justice Media Lab program. Strout’s impact on Douglas was profound. “She taught me the ropes on how to research pressing issues, interview people, and advocate for causes,” says Douglas. “And this cemented my desire to be in a profession where I help people.”

At Media Lab Douglas found her voice and learned the importance of storytelling. She helped to produce documentaries that focused on the power of language and the social determinants of health. She discovered that ideas scribbled on a paper could blossom into award-winning documentaries that were shown at the Tribeca Film Festival and The Human Rights Watch Festival. “I learned how to advocate through art,” says Douglas.

The Urban Arts Partnership Media Lab and being mentored by Strout stretched Douglas in ways she never imaged. “The course, which takes place during the summer literally took me out of my environment,” she says. It was the first time she traveled to Manhattan on a regular basis.

Their film, Type Cast, brought awareness to the devastating impacts of diabetes and how it disproportionately affects low-income communities of color. It offered ways to reduce risk factors. “This created a spark for public health and community action within me,” says Douglas. “I learned the impact food deserts, lack of parks and recreational centers, and reduced outreach have on the health of a community.” In her heart she knew that when she became a physician she would work in an underserved community.

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The Media Lab interviews Anthony Mackie With Sotonye Douglas on camera (Photo by Anna Strout)

From the beginning Strout was Douglas’ biggest supporter. “She always looked to share unique opportunities with us. With her we saw plays, musicals, and other expressions of art that typical kids from my neighborhood didn’t usually access,” says Douglas. “I learned so much about visual art and it fueled my desire to want better for my future.”

Having Strout in her corner mentoring Douglas since she was 14, continues to have a profound impact on her life. “Anna saw the potential I had as a teenager and poured in her love and support. She literally a second mom at times and was integral in the process of me going away to college,” says Douglas.

When Douglas went to college at the State University of New York at Albany she had to work to support herself, many times choosing between basic necessities and school resources. “There was a time that I emptied my piggy bank to get food for the week,” says Douglas who worked the closing shift at fast-food restaurants during high school to pay for her college applications.

Trying to juggle work and school led her to failing general chemistry. But she didn’t give up. She researched how to get into medical school. “I’d never even heard of an MCAT and could not afford a $2,000 prep course,” she says. “I studied with old books that someone donated to me.”

Working twenty hours a week her MCAT grade suffered and she only scored in 19th percentile. Undeterred, she applied to fifteen medical schools and all of them rejected her. She lost $2,200 on the applications alone. But she pulled herself together and kept going.

Unstoppable, Douglas enrolled in a Master’s program so she could prove she was capable of succeeding on a higher level. She took out student loans. And for the first time she was able to focus on her schoolwork instead of surviving to get by.

“I went into beast mode. I was like a machine,” she shares. “I made my first A ever in a higher education course.” And the next time she took the MCAT, she scored in the 73rd percentile. “When those results came in, I was laying on the floor crying,” she says. “Nobody knew how hard I prayed and worked for this.”

On December 10th 2018 Douglas received an email with the subject line “Congratulations.” Then she read “It is with great pleasure that I inform you of your acceptance to the Doctorate of Medicine (MD) program.” Her eyes welled up with tears. “I could feel the tension of years of failure and doubt seep away. I could finally breathe,” says Douglas. “I would be the first doctor in my family.”

While in medical school and dealing with all the expenses outside the cost of tuition, she saw how costly it all was, especially with prep courses and books. When Douglas reflected on her academic journey, she realized how her goals were almost derailed by simple barriers like affording books and paying for application fees.

“I wondered how many students from similarly disadvantaged communities were giving up on their dreams because of similar financial burdens,” she says. "I wondered how many bright, driven, compassionate people were excluded from the medical field because of something as simple as paying for books.”

Feeling an overwhelming need to do something, she created The 1001 Aspirations Project. For the past seven months she has been recycling medical prep course materials, shipping them to students in need. The project is a 501c3 partner project under The Fund for The City of New York. All donations are tax-deductible, including books. And 100% of the proceeds go to the project.

Douglas’ mission is to help 1001 students by 2026. She choose that number to honor the first community service act that she participated in as a child. When she was seven she raised $1,000 for her church. "So 1001 students is the newest challenge,” says Douglas.

Looking back Douglas is emboldened by all the mentors who continue to help nurture her. And she hopes that she give in kind. “I am so blessed to have mentors like Anna who speak on my behalf. My mentors have literally supported me every step of the way and gone above and beyond to help me,” she says. “Sometimes I wonder how I became so lucky to become her student. And I think of paying it forward to continue the positivity and support.”

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Anna Strout, Jesse Eisenberg and Douglas' family at her White Coat Ceremony (Photo by Cristian Reyes)

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In elementary school Sotonye Douglas had big dreams (Photo by Diepiriye Douglas)

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New York based journalist who has written for Forbes, Parade, InStyle, National Geographic Traveler, Travel + Leisure, and The Wall Street Journal. Author of the book "My City, My New York, Famous New Yorkers Share Their Favorite Places" and podcaster, ("When Lightning Strikes"). I cover the arts, theater, entertainment, food, travel and people who are motivated by their joy and passion.

New York City, NY
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