Brandeis Alumni, Family and Friends

Pursuing Her Dream

By Brian Klotz

They call it “Match Day.” Each year, on the third Friday in March, graduating students at United States medical schools gather together and count down to noon, when they tear open envelopes that reveal where they will be placed for their residency.

“It’s the best day of med school,” says Ria Roberts ’10. “Everyone was crying and screaming. I lost my voice.”

Roberts had good reason to celebrate. Her own envelope declared she would be matched with her top choice: Yale. It was the culmination of a long journey for Roberts, an immigrant and first-generation college student who, as a young girl living in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, always dreamed of being a doctor.

Roberts came to the United States with her parents and two sisters when she was 16. “In the U.S.,” she says, “you can become whatever you want to become if you set your mind to it and work hard.”

Roberts attended Manhattan Comprehensive High School, which focuses on helping immigrant students adapt to their new country. While there, her passion for medicine led her to take advantage of hands-on learning opportunities, including a summer program at Cornell on molecular biology. Roberts graduated as her class valedictorian, and this spring she will return as the school’s commencement speaker.

When the time came to apply to colleges, Roberts’ guidance counselor recognized her inclination toward medicine and suggested she attend Brandeis, even accompanying her on a visit.

“It’s a beautiful campus,” says Roberts, “and I was glad I got to sit in on a class.” She was impressed, a feeling that grew more after receiving a Brandeis endorsement from a strange source. A professor at another school she was considering suggested that she go elsewhere if she wanted the best pre-med education. “He told me I should go to Brandeis!”

At Brandeis, Roberts was the inaugural recipient of the Minority Alumni Network Diversity Scholarship, an initiative spearheaded by the organization’s chair, Joseph Perkins ’66. The two developed a close friendship that endures to this day; Perkins even threw a party for Roberts when she got into medical school at George Washington University.

Eager to connect with and help others from similar backgrounds, Roberts joined the Student Support Services Program, which offers resources to first-generation students or those who have otherwise overcome significant barriers to attend Brandeis. She served on the program’s leadership board and as a one-on-one mentor.

She also found other ways to make students feel welcome at Brandeis, working as a new student orientation leader and a residence hall community advisor. “Having a good network of people is important,” says Roberts.

In the summer before her junior year, Roberts faced an obstacle that threatened to derail her undergraduate career, as she required major spinal fusion surgery. When doctors recommended that she not return to school in the fall of 2008, Roberts persisted. “I wanted to graduate with my friends,” she says.

The understanding and support of Brandeis faculty and staff -- along with a cane for navigating campus -- allowed Roberts to continue her education. After graduating in 2010 with a degree in biology, Roberts joined the laboratory of Professor Dennis Kasper at Harvard Medical School, where she spent two years studying the bacteria that causes tularemia.

At George Washington, Roberts’ published works on vitamin D deficiency in the African-American population earned her the school’s highest honor for student research, the Doris DeFord Speck and George Speck M.D. Endowed Prize for Student Medical Research. She also held leadership roles in the university’s chapters of the American Medical Women’s Association and the Student National Medical Association.

Roberts has settled on a characteristically ambitious career goal: In addition to practicing medicine as an internist, she hopes to become student affairs dean of a medical school. “I don’t want to just be a doctor,” she says, “I want to be a doctor plus.”

Explaining her desire to help students navigate the world of medicine, Roberts says, “It’s just like at Brandeis. I enjoy being a mentor and guiding people through challenges.”

As she begins her residency at Yale, Roberts continues to be involved with her undergraduate alma mater. She led the D.C. chapter of Bold (Brandeisians of the Last Decade), and looks forward to meeting Brandeis alumni in Connecticut.

“I love bringing people together, getting them to reconnect or to make friends in a new city,” she says, recalling her own experiences acclimating to new environments.

She remembers the advice she often gave younger students at Brandeis: “Do not be discouraged by circumstances. You can change your circumstances. Nothing is beyond your potential.”

Published On: May 8, 2017