Sarah Yosief, a first-year student at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, has roots in a place many people may not have even heard of: Eritrea.

Located in northeast Africa, the small country borders the Red Sea. Her Eritrean parents were war refugees in the mid-1980s who settled in Charlotte, North Carolina, hoping for a better life.

By the time Yosief and her sister, Kibret, came along, her father had established a successful convenience store, but neither parent spoke fluent English, and their native language was the only thing spoken in the home. This proved difficult when Kibret developed a frightening, mysterious neurological condition, and Sarah watched as doctors and her parents struggled to communicate with each other and for her parents to pay for medical care.

“That was my first real exposure to medicine,” Yosief said. “It kick-started my journey to where I am now. I want to work toward alleviating the pervasive health burdens of diverse and marginalized people.”

Kibret eventually made a full recovery. A recent visit to Eritrea solidified Yosief’s passion to help underserved populations.

“I came across hundreds of homeless, malnourished people and saw first-hand the prevalence of insufficient health care and social inequities,” she said. “It was the most humbling experience of my life. While I’m thankful for my own social status, I came away knowing I could never pursue medicine without focusing on the disadvantaged.”

Having earned a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience from Duke University and a graduate certificate in biomedical sciences from the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, Yosief set her sights on medical school. Along the way, she gained research experience at Duke, Stanford, and the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, where she worked in the lab of the late Kevin Robertson, professor of neurology and director of the AIDS Neurological Center. Robertson was internationally known for his global work in the neurological complications of AIDS. Yosief’s role at the center was to administer neuropsychological testing to HIV patients.

“I was blessed to have the position in Dr. Robertson’s lab because not only was I exposed to patient care but I also learned about how to do clinical research,” Yosief said. “It allowed me to gain a more profound appreciation of the professional and personal competencies that make a successful physician. If it hadn’t been for him, I would not be where I am now.”

In fact, she was credited on two of Robertson’s research publications. He died shortly before Yosief entered medical school last summer.

“I would love to follow in his footsteps one day,” she said.

The Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine’s research curriculum was the first thing that caught Yosief’s attention when she was looking at medical schools. The school is one of only a few in the country that requires each student to conduct a four-year longitudinal research project that is of publishable quality in an academic journal.

“VTC’s curriculum allows me to learn the clinical side of medicine and feed my research interests at the same time,” she said. Her passion is neuroscience research, something that dates back to the time of her sister’s illness years ago.

As part of her acceptance into the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, Yosief received the school’s Caroline Osborne Memorial Scholarship. Osborne was a member of the medical school’s charter class who succumbed to cancer before she was able to graduate. Her parents established the scholarship in her honor.

As a first-generation college student, Sarah said the scholarship has helped relieve some of the financial burden of medical school.

“I consider myself blessed to have had come this far,” she said. “This scholarship is instrumental in helping me make an impact by creating opportunities for a better life for those who do not have equal opportunity.”

Yosief had offers from other medical schools, but after coming to the school for an interview, she knew it was where she wanted to be.

“I got the feeling that this school was very, very unique,” she said. “I could tell it was a highly student-centered program and that the faculty and staff were keenly involved in everyone’s well-being.”

It may be that personal attention that has set the stage for Yosief to blossom. Admittedly reserved by nature, she would often hold back from speaking up in school.

“I was afraid people would judge me,” she said. “But now that I’m here, my mindset is, ‘Here I am. I deserve to be here, and I’m doing my thing.’ I definitely feel good about where I am, and I’m ready to push on through.”