Miranda Freeman is far from alone in spending a lot more time than usual in a surgical mask this year — but unlike most people, she’s a first-year medical student.
As a first-generation college student, Freeman has set a series of lofty goals for herself along the way and sailed undaunted through most of them: first at Sandhills Community College, all the way through a master’s degree at N.C. State.
Now she’s facing the greatest academic challenge of her life at East Carolina’s Brody School of Medicine in pursuit of the highest goal she’s set for herself yet: to serve the Native American community as a physician.
“There’s nothing I can compare it to,” said Freeman. “I think my master’s degree prepared me more than undergrad but there’s nothing that equates to what I’m doing now. Nothing in my master’s or undergrad career was this hard.”
Freeman, the daughter of Tim and Cindy Freeman of Eagle Springs, graduated from North Moore High in 2013 with dreams of becoming a pharmacist. She spent two years at Sandhills before transferring to The University of North Carolina.
After a summer of job shadowing before her junior year, she realized that she wasn’t interested in the day-to-day of pharmacy work. But Freeman found a new avenue and a new purpose after shadowing Pembroke pediatrician Joseph Bell.
“He was a super awesome mentor. He’s Lumbee and he works with a large Lumbee population, which is the tribe that my mom’s from and the tribe that I identify with,” said Freeman.
“I hadn’t really thought about serving our Lumbee tribe specifically until I worked with him and he talked about why it’s important for the community to have someone within their community to look up to in the medical field.”
Freeman finished her bachelor’s degree in psychology at UNC and went on to earn a master’s in physiology at N.C. State last year.
Acceptance to the Brody School of Medicine came in November. Then Freeman started the routine process of applying for scholarships. At most she hoped to receive some kind of aid to help defray the six figures of cost that come with four years in medical school.
That level of debt would be new for Freeman, who received a full scholarship to UNC. She then held down two catering jobs on top of working with autistic children as a behavioral therapist while she worked toward her master’s degree.
It was only up to her to submit a general scholarship application. Then East Carolina decides which, if any, of its assortment of available scholarships a student might qualify to receive. Until this past February, the thought of one scholarship covering all of her medical school costs hadn’t crossed Freeman’s mind.
“Coming from the background I have and not knowing that much about the academic system, I didn’t even know this was a scholarship that they have,” she said.
“I was so worried about all the loans I was going to have. I’m a first generation college student, I’ll be the first doctor of any sort in my family and extended family. So not only the fact that I got into medical school but that I got a scholarship that fully covers my costs of going to medical school - I couldn’t believe it.”
Each year, East Carolina awards the Brody Scholarship to three of its incoming medical students. The scholarship is valued at around $115,000, and covers tuition and living expenses.
March was a tense month for Freeman, especially once the coronavirus pandemic forced the school to cancel scheduled scholarship interviews.
Ultimately, scholarships were awarded based on students’ merit and personal statements and Freeman found out at the end of March that she was one of the three chosen from a class of 89.
“I was so worried because we didn’t get to interview or anything and I didn’t get to try to win them over,” she said. “They were just judging me based on paper.”
Freeman is one of 146 students to receive the Brody Scholarship since the program’s inception in 1983. About 75 percent of Brody Scholars stay in North Carolina to practice medicine.
“I hope to learn how to effectively work for underrepresented populations and how to best advocate for their specific and unique needs that differ from the majority populations,” she said. “I’m especially passionate about how we as medical professionals and physicians can provide better care for marginalized groups.”
So far, the experience of starting medical school during a pandemic hasn’t aligned with what she envisioned when she was applying a year ago. Most classroom material is covered online, and students are split into smaller groups for cadaver labs, foundations of doctoring and case analysis exercises.
“We haven’t gotten to meet everybody in our class yet,” said Freeman. “We have to wear surgical masks and face shields in the cadaver lab, always have face masks on, and anything that we can do online we’re doing online.”
But even in a normal year, she says that medical school would still have been the hardest thing she’s ever undertaken.
“I have learned more material in four weeks than I ever did in a single class in undergrad,” she said. “The volume and the speed at which we have to learn things, it’s borderline impossible.”
Freeman isn’t yet sure what being “finished” looks like — whether she’ll be a general practitioner, surgeon or researcher — but she has a long way to go to get there. Then again, she’s already come a long way, and her family have never wavered in their support as she pursues her dreams.
“I think it will all develop as time goes as I figure out where my niche is and where I can best be of use and support the community that I want to support,” she said.
“My parents understand that it’s very demanding and they’ve always supported my path to getting there. They know it’s something that I want to do, and I couldn’t have gotten this far without them.”