issue Community Health 2024

Discovering Chicago Medical School: ‘It Changed My Whole Life’

By Amy Knutson Strack
Charles Bieleu Nkamga, CMS ’27, reacts to the news that he has been selected to receive the Berger Scholarship.

Charles Bieleu Nkamga, CMS ’27, is quick to say he knew his trajectory in medicine would take an “untraditional path.”

He’s also unwavering in describing how the support of mentors and early influencers in his life helped him navigate his path through hard work.

According to Mr. Bieleu Nkamga, enrolling in Chicago Medical School “changed my whole life,” from educational opportunities to financial wellness. Shortly after matriculating in spring 2023, Mr. Bieleu Nkamga was invited to an unexpected Zoom meeting with CMS Dean Archana Chatterjee, MD, PhD — who told him that he had earned the Sheldon H. Berger, MD, Scholarship, a four-year, full tuition scholarship with a stipend for living expenses.

He talks about the award humbly, still in quiet amazement how it changed his outlook as a first-year medical student in a positive way.

“I’ll be honest with you — I never thought, if you look at my whole life, the way things happened … I didn’t expect it.”

“鶹Ӱ is really invested in seeing all of the people succeed. You can see the efforts that 鶹Ӱ puts in, and I can feel the support.”

He also understands what the Berger Scholarship means for his future, bringing financial support to a lifelong dream to become a doctor.

Family Lineage

When Mr. Bieleu Nkamga was a young child growing up in Cameroon before moving to Maryland, his family shared stories about his paternal grandparents serving their community in health care.

His grandfather and grandmother — a doctor and midwife team — were legendary among neighbors, where healing and medicine went hand-in-hand. Together, they brought resources to the community as they tended to an array of healthcare needs.

“(My grandfather) was really involved in his community, and it was really inspiring to have this in our lineage. Growing up, I was like, ‘I want to be like him,’’’ Mr. Bieleu Nkamga said. “My father, my uncles, my aunts (would tell his stories) and about my grandma, too — she was really influential. She was one of the first ladies in the neighborhood to be driving.”

An awareness of healthcare resources, folklore and who can afford medicine in Cameroon was also apparent to Mr. Bieleu Nkamga at a young age.

When he was 12, a friend became very ill, possibly from something poisonous. By the time the young friend reached care at a hospital, it was too late, and he died. Mr. Bieleu Nkamga remembers going to the morgue with his friend’s mother and hearing her cries.

“You don’t forget those things,” Mr. Bieleu Nkamga said. “That was the first friend I saw pass away. I thought, ‘If there were more doctors or hospitals, maybe he would still be alive.’ So those kinds of things really inspired me to go into medicine. I have always wanted to be a resource.”

These early stories significantly influenced Mr. Bieleu Nkamga to aim for future goals, even when barriers quickly presented themselves.

One Goal, Many Paths

As a teenager, Mr. Bieleu Nkamga moved to Maryland with his tightly knit family: his parents, two sisters and two brothers. He counts his immediate family as his first mentors, offering strong emotional support and good advice. As the second-youngest in the family, Mr. Bieleu Nkamga recalls them telling him to be open-minded and to always “keep trying.”

With French as his first language, he was required to focus on English as a Second Language (ESL) courses in high school. Despite his interest in science, he was required to take ESL classes. He recalls this transition as challenging.

“It was very difficult, both socially and academically, because you don’t speak the language,” said Mr. Bieleu Nkamga.

By the time he graduated from high school and reached Montgomery County Community College in Rockland, Maryland, he hadn’t taken the math and science prerequisites typically learned in high school. He felt behind, but he worked assiduously, eventually transferring and graduating from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in Catonsville, Maryland.

On August 11, 2023, Charles receives his CMS white coat.
On August 11, 2023, Charles receives his CMS white coat.

After college, he determined he wasn’t quite ready for medical school, and to help his family, he took a job as a manufacturing operator in a lab at a biopharmaceutical company.

Still, he held on to his dream.

Lockdown, Breakthroughs

In March 2020, when the U.S. went on lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr. Bieleu Nkamga’s employer, a biosciences company, sent him home, too. While people learned Zoom virtual platforms and discovered hobbies, he broke out every MCAT book he owned and studied. Over and over. Cover to cover. He also applied to a post-baccalaureate program at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois.

“By the time my managers told me to come back, I had gone through all of my MCAT textbooks, and I had even had my admissions to Dominican’s post-bacc program.

“It was great. Don’t get me wrong — in biopharma, I worked with some of the coolest pieces of equipment and the best ultrafiltration and amazing tanks, but it wasn’t scratching the itch. I had to pursue medicine. It was OK for me at the time, but I wasn’t happy.”

He had set aside some money to pay for the program, and decided that by August, he would set off for Illinois.

Illinois Bound, New Friends

When Mr. Bieleu Nkamga left Maryland for Illinois to attend Dominican University, he only knew it was another new place — near the City of Chicago.

Just two days before the trip, he admits he started to panic and made a list of excuses not to go. His sisters reassured him, urging him to make the trip.

That day, his eldest sister also gave Mr. Bieleu Nkamga a name of a longtime friend in Illinois who was willing to help him, and he lived just 20 minutes away from Dominican. She unknowingly gave him the name of Mr. Bieleu Nkamga’s next mentor.

“I just got in my car, and I drove 12 hours from Maryland to a family friend I barely knew because I was pursuing medicine. I didn’t want to be 50 and regret not going after it. I gambled. If it didn’t work out, I was going to figure something else out.”

The sister’s friend, a young man with a young family, gave him housing, ensured he had meals and took that weight of finding a long-term place to stay off of his shoulders.

“(They) created space for me. I think I would have run out of money if I had to find my own place or cook my own food,” Mr. Bieleu Nkamga said. “For me, he was the key for me to finish at Dominican University. So I would come home to meals and a place to stay. I’m so thankful. So appreciative.”

Mr. Bieleu Nkamga attributes this support and his maturity to doing really well in the program, achieving a 4.0 GPA. By shadowing surgeons and participating in preceptorships at Chicago-area hospitals, Mr. Bieleu Nkamga solidified his goal and next steps.

Discovering 鶹Ӱ

He learned about 鶹Ӱ’s Pre-Matriculation Program (PMP) while at Dominican. He applied and completed the one-year track, subsequently applying to allopathic and osteopathic schools, but his goal was to attend Chicago Medical School, where he already felt a sense of belonging.

“It’s very inviting,” said Mr. Bieleu Nkamga. “The PMP program with housing on campus and a stipend — those things really help, and (CMS) wants you to succeed. People talk to you with advice, people get to know you.

“Rosalind Franklin is an amazing school. I think of my whole education, I’ve never seen any of the schools I went to that were like it,” said Mr. Bieleu Nkamga. “鶹Ӱ is really invested in seeing all of the people succeed. You can see the efforts that 鶹Ӱ puts in, and I can feel the support.”

Recalling when he received the Berger Scholarship, he said “what a moment.”

“The same year I got into medical school, I got a full-ride scholarship,” Mr. Bieleu Nkamga said. “It helps my whole outlook on life — gives me extra motivation and a positive sense of purpose. I have no excuse but to give it everything I have. Somebody cared enough for me to have this.”

His family traveled to celebrate the CMS White Coat Ceremony with him in August, and so did family members from River Forest who helped him when he came to Illinois.

Mr. Bieleu Nkamga admits it is too soon to declare a specialty, but he’s interested in practicing in the U.S. and bringing resources to Cameroon.

“I’m from both places,” said Mr. Bieleu Nkamga. “I love Maryland. I’m thinking of having a clinic or something in Cameroon to pay homage, because it is what inspired me.”

The Sheldon H. Berger, MD, Scholarship - 4 years of tuition plus a cost-of-living stipend. Recipients are selected by the dean with the advice of the Scholarship Committee.


Amy Knutson Strack is director of advancement communications in the Office of Institutional Advancement.