28 Days of Black Excellence: Jamilah Okoe
Dr. Jamilah Okoe was born and raised in Chicago. She received her Bachelor of Science in Nursing from the University of Illinois Chicago. She worked as a pediatric nurse for five years before attending Rush Medical College and earning her doctorate in medicine. She completed her residency training in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Chicago. Okoe was employed with Advocate Medical Group for over six years before joining WomenCare, a comprehensive healthcare practice for women in Chicago’s northwestern suburbs. Her special interests include menstrual irregularities, contraception management and post-menopausal bleeding. Okoe’s pastimes outside of work include spending time with her family, gardening and skiing.
Tariq El-Amin 00:01
Welcome to Black Excellence at UIC Office of Diversity, Equity and Engagement with Dr. Aisha El-Amin
Recording of Dr. Martin Luther King 00:09
[Applause] Believe in yourself and believe that you’re somebody.
Clips from 1995 movie “Panther” 00:17
That we study and master a bunch of different things.
Why are you here?
Study and master a bunch of different things.
I’m proud to introduce our new Minister of Information
Aisha El-Amin 00:26
I’m Dr. Aisha El-Amin
Tariq El-Amin 00:29
Welcome to Black Excellence.
Aisha El-Amin 0:36
Greetings UIC family and friends and welcome to UIC’s 28 Days of Black Excellence. I am Dr. Aisha El-Amin, UIC’s Associate Vice Chancellor for Equity and Belonging. It is my great honor to celebrate the history of Black Excellence at UIC with powerful, inspiring and informative conversations with UIC’s alumni, past faculty and staff. And each day we have a new guest and I am really excited to share and welcome in admiration, Dr. Jamilah Okoe. She is a graduate of College of Nursing class of 2000 and has been up to so many things since 2000. And so I’m gonna hand the mic over to her to kind of catch us up and let let us know what she’s been up to.
Jamilah Okoe 1:32
Hi, hello, class of the UIC family. My name is Dr. Jamilah Okoe. I attended UIC from 1996 to 2000. I was actually a College of Nursing nursing major actually. I graduated in 2000, as I stated earlier. Since graduation from nursing school, I worked as a nurse for about five years and decided to go on and pursue medicine. So in 2006 I attended Rush University after applying and I attended their medical college. I graduated in 2010. I later went on to do residency at University of Chicago in obstetrics and gynecology, completed that in 2014. And currently, I’m a board certified obstetrician and gynecologist and practice probably 50 miles northwest of Chicago.
Aisha El-Amin 2:35
Wow, that’s wow, what a journey. Yeah, well, I’m a backup a bit… tell us, were you from Chicago?
Jamilah Okoe 2:44
I was. My parents are from Ghana, West Africa, but I was born and raised in Chicago. I lived in South Shore I went to… it’s funny, I went to Sister Clara Muhammad School. I meant for elementary school, but that was for a portion of elementary school. Later, I went to the local public school in my neighborhood. I attended Hyde Park Career Academy for high school. So I’m pretty much a local girl, born and raised.
Aisha El-Amin 3:17
Yeah, [laughter] Southside…. The beauty of your journey, right and connect with, you know, Southside, Hyde Park many of our students, who are at UIC now, that is their journey, and they can see kind of the trajectory there. And you look back at your time at UIC as a student. And you started off in nursing, can you just tell me how, what happened, you know, from nursing into where you are now? What changed your mind? And what was that? What did that look like?
Jamilah Okoe 3:50
Yeah, so, you know, I remember, funny, growing up always wanting to be a medical doctor, actually a pediatrician. And so what happened, I kind of worked towards that goal throughout. And then in high school, toward junior year, when you’re starting to apply for colleges and things like that, I started to get cold feet. I didn’t think I could do it, you know, mainly because I’m like, you know, there’s always this kind of like, unspoken thing….well, I won’t say it was unspoken, but it was like this stereotype like, oh, ‘you’re in a city, you know, you don’t have the strong foundation.’ A lot of people don’t. They struggle in college, don’t make it through and I think a lot of those stereotypes and a lot of those misconceptions kind of haunted me for a while. And then I started to believe them, unfortunately. I was always a good student, but like I said, they always made it sound like you couldn’t cut the mustard.
I knew my parents wasn’t gonna not tolerate me going to college and I didn’t know what to do. I have an aunt that’s actually a registered nurse. She suggested I just maybe do nursing to kind of get a feel for the medical, the health careers or health or medical field and then decide from there, if that’s really something I want to pursue further. So at the time, UIC had this program where you had direct admission into the College of Nursing from high school, so I applied, and I got accepted. And so that’s how I ended up becoming a nursing major, immediately into undergrad. I’m pretty thankful for that program, because it gave me confidence, helped me to regain my confidence actually, and then later pursue other things. And, during that journey, I met many wonderful people that I still keep in contact with to this very day. Some of them still remained as nurses, some of them have moved on. I know one of my really good friends, she’s currently a dentist. We met in undergrad, and she actually ended up going to UIC dental school a few years later. I’m really thankful for UIC. It’s funny even though UIC is in the city of Chicago, based on a population of Blacks in a city, it’s not representative of that in the actual college itself. So, because it wasn’t, many of us we tend to stick together, form really strong bonds, kind of give each other support through the process. I’m really thankful for that part of being at UIC.
Aisha El-Amin 6:47
I love that. I think that’s so important. You think back you form those bonds, but what are some some other fond memories that you have as you look back on your time at UIC?
Jamilah Okoe 7:02
So you know, it’s funny, once again, you form bonds with people that kind of look like you, but then you also form bonds with other people in that space. I know UIC, I mean, it’s this big, massive institution, and I remember being an like, oh, my God, it’s so intimidating. But when you actually conquer and do well, you feel this sense of achievement that no one can ever take from you. I remember sitting in this huge bio class with, like, 500 plus people. I got to an A in that class. This is really what I needed to prove to myself in a world like — I could do that. I think that number one it was fun forming these bonds with so many people. But, number two, knowing that I actually graduated from UIC, top of class, no one can take that from me. I think that’s another thing that I took a lot of pride in, moving forward.
Aisha El-Amin 8:07
Oh, you said it just right. Sometimes you need to have that success in order to realize and build that confidence. With every journey, there’s challenges, right? There’s challenges and so as current students look at this, and they think about their own journey, and their challenges, can you talk about a challenge that you had, or challenges in general and how you faced those, and obviously, you were able to succeed and to graduate and keep going. So, what are some examples of challenges that you had?
Jamilah Okoe 8:48
I’ve had so many challenges throughout my time. In undergrad, not so much. I was 18 when I started college. I didn’t have any kids, I wasn’t married. So, my only focus at the time was just to do school and my family’s pretty supportive of that. You just kind of had to block out a lot of the external forces, and you kind of go through. But I know when, by the time I went to med school, I was married, I did have a kid, and that within itself was a challenge. Because, you know, you’re now your focus is being placed in other areas. It’s just learning how to balance those things. And, with those challenges and things like that, you just have to kind of rely on all the sources around you for support. Your family, friends, you’ll even have faculty members that’s really rooting for you that will kind of help you through the way. So, I think for me, hard work for sure helps, and keeping focused and determined, just being positive, having good karma, and just knowing I need to just focus in on a goal and trying to achieve it, by all means necessary. That’s the only thing you can do to kind of get through it. No one’s gonna come rescue you, people will help, but it’s up to you to really kind of put in effort and do what you need to do. And, you know, like I say, once you put out there in a universe that this is what I want to do, you give it your all. It’s funny, you’ll have different things that fall into place to get you there. So just don’t lose track, don’t lose focus, and just keep going. There’s a big payoff at the end. And I think sometimes people don’t see it, they get consumed by things around them, like oh, you know, what, my friends are doing this, and, if I would have just done this, I would be done. There’s no quick route out of anything. If this is what you want to do, just focus and do it, don’t look at like, oh, I need a shorter, faster route. No, normally, that’s not the way. Just stick with it, and you will get there. Promise. You know, other people have done it and you can, too. I know people like …well, I’m not that person. …. everyone is their own individual. Right? But collectively, you have people, ancestry, that have made it and you will too. So you just kind of have to have a positive ideology of things, outlook and in workout, promise.
Aisha El-Amin 11:45
Wow, that’s some powerful advice, Dr. Jamiliah, that’s really powerful. As we close out, and I just thank you for all of your wisdom for clearing the path for other folks, right? Because as you say, it’s just not many of us in these fields. What advice would you give people who are just starting their journey?
Jamilah Okoe 12:14
I mean, don’t limit yourself. If you set out to do this you just have to believe and trust a process. I know, for me, I went through that. So that’s why I’m able to offer that advice, like you keep thinking, well, I can’t do it, or people are telling me that I can’t do it. You have some people that they have they may see some things, but that doesn’t that shouldn’t prevent you from pursuing what you want to do. Right? So don’t limit yourself as to what you can do. Just go for it. It’s better for you to go and an attempt it versus then pull yourself back and then kind of settle for something else. Because then later on, down the road you’re like man, it’s always this regret or shoulda, coulda, woulda, but at least if you tried it, you’re like know what, I could have done it and stop thinking it’s just something just specific to you or us as a group. Because the same struggles we have other people have too, they may not just air it out in the open. Don’t ever just think, ‘I’m a minority.’ No. Non-minorities have the same issues too. You know, it’s just that they have other outlets or they try to be more resourceful to try to get what they need done. So you use the same level of resources, trust me it is out there. And as you just keep going, if you set its focus in on this, you can get it done. Right? So don’t don’t limit yourself. You can do it.
Aisha El-Amin 13:52
From Dr. Jamilah Okoe — don’t limit yourself. From UIC to the doctor’s private practice. We appreciate the excellence, the Black excellence that you’ve shown, and that you inspire us to keep going. We thank you. I thank you for being part of our Black History Month series, and for being part of UIC’s legacy of excellence.
Jamilah Okoe 14:18
Tariq El-Amin 14:21
[Music] Thanks for joining us find more inspiring and informative conversations with UIC alumni, faculty and staff at blackresources.uic.edu. That’s blackresources.uic.edu.