Agnes Lau

Graduate Student-at-Large | 2013-14

When Agnes Lau disembarked at O’Hare International Airport in September to start her studies at the University of Chicago as a graduate student-at-large, she didn’t know a single person here. She had never been to Chicago before. She had never studied in the US before. She was 7,785 miles from home, in Hong Kong. Armed with a laptop and a list of required courses for the country’s top-ranked pharmacy school, she was on her way to Hyde Park to begin her studies, and hopefully, to continue her journey to her childhood goal of earning a doctorate at one of the world’s best pharmacy schools, the University of California, San Francisco.

“I looked for a school that was highly rigorous academically, and I also wanted to experience what undergraduate life here in America is like, so the GSAL program fit my needs exactly. In China as an undergrad, my university didn’t place too much emphasis on a liberal arts education, but here at the University of Chicago…students are required to know a lot more outside of what their majors require, which is something I consider very beneficial to me because it’s complementing the two education experiences I’ve had.”

Agnes received her undergraduate degree in biology from Tsinghua University in Beijing, where she was first exposed to the plight of migrant worker communities. Displaced from their birthplaces by harsh economic conditions and because of the Chinese policy known as “houkou”, which ties social services to birth registration, rural migrants can find themselves living on the fringes of urban population centers, scavenging for work, and without access to basic health care. As an undergraduate at Tsinghua, Agnes organized a student group that coordinated medical volunteers with migrant patients living in enclaves outside the city. Coming from affluent Hong Kong, it was during this time that her eyes were opened to entire communities of rural migrant workers, struggling to feed and take care of their families without the most basic social services that in her experience, the government had always provided. She resolved to do something about it.

“I realized that I wanted to address migrant health issues in a more direct way, and in order to do it, I would need professional knowledge and skills.”

“My dream was to become a pharmacist to serve the underprivileged migrant worker community in China. Lacking access to quality healthcare services, many of them resort to self-administering inappropriate or even counterfeit medications, for lack of information and resources. I realized that I wanted to address migrant health issues in a more direct way, and in order to do it, I would need professional knowledge and skills.”

“I was determined to pursue my Doctor of Pharmacy degree in the US.”

After finishing her undergraduate degree at Tsinghua, Agnes knew she wanted to attend pharmacy school in the United States. “As I did some research and talked to current pharmacists, I learned that the field of pharmacy has largely developed in the United States, where pharmacists have a forthcoming role to play in the healthcare system. This is why I was determined to pursue my Doctor of Pharmacy degree in the US.”

In order to be eligible to apply to DPharm programs in the US, Agnes first had to complete a required curriculum, much like pre-med students applying to medical schools. Many of the courses that she didn’t have were in the humanities and emphasized critical thinking and writing skills. She decided that her best course of action would be to try to take these courses in the US, and she embarked on more research to identify programs that would enable her to take a wide range of courses with tenured faculty and full-time students. Her research led her to the Graduate Student-at-Large program at the University of Chicago.

Determined to gain the professional knowledge and skills that she needed to address the serious healthcare needs of migrant communities in China, Agnes arrived in Hyde Park and rolled up her sleeves to take the kinds of courses in the humanities and social sciences that she had never been exposed to during her undergraduate studies. And just for good measure, she registered for a year of organic chemistry too. Buckling down, she also prepared her applications to DPharm programs during autumn quarter, drafting essay after essay about her dreams and aspirations in English, her third language.

“It wasn’t so much about the knowledge portion of it, but more about teaching us a new way of thinking.”

Of all the cultural differences that Agnes encountered here, the active approach towards learning, by both students and faculty, probably made the biggest impression on her.

Agnes made particular mention of an engaging economics class she took with Allen Sanderson. “[Professor Sanderson] was really good at teaching. He was able to incorporate real life examples into his teaching that I never thought could be applied before. He really taught us to think like an economist, even though I’m not an economics student. It wasn’t so much about the knowledge portion of it, but more about teaching us a new way of thinking.”

Aside from the dynamic professors whom she encountered, Agnes also appreciated interacting with her fellow classmates. ldquo;Students [at U of C] are strongly encouraged to participate in class. Aside from discussing just to get a good grade, we were also discussing to advance the conversation forward….this was not really emphasized in my undergraduate studies. It helped me a lot because when sometimes when you are in meetings with others, people can get aggressive and this helps you learn how to communicate. Students here know when to interrupt others without being rude and it drives the conversation in a very positive way, which I find really interesting.”

After completing a year at the University of Chicago as a graduate student- at-large, the next important step on her journey will be to move to San Francisco, where she will enter the DPharm program at the University of California, San Francisco. She found out she had been offered a place in April, two months after she interviewed. “When I found out from UCSF, people were kind of going crazy. I remember my mom was crying. It was a little bit of a shock because I didn’t really know how I did on the interview, or if I hit on what they wanted me to show—and it was a long wait [2 months] for the decision.”

What are her goals after UCSF? “I’m planning on doing my pharmacy residency in pediatrics here in the United States, and then once I’m done with that I plan on going back to China where the field of pharmacy is underdeveloped. The role of pharmacists as health care professionals is really underutilized. I really want to play an active role in the development of this field there, and to serve a lot more people, especially underprivileged groups. They do not have money to go to the doctor, and a pharmacist can step in and play a more active role in improving people’s health through drug therapy.”

UPDATE: Congratulations to Agnes who has started the PharmD Program at University of California, San Francisco!