An Improbable Journey

Rhea Sharma's family fled ethnic cleansing, found a haven in a refugee camp and carved out a new life in America–a path that inspired her to become a physician.

For Rhea Sharma, life began a world away from Indiana—in a refugee camp.

Her father was a freedom fighter and human rights activist in Bhutan, a small nation wedged between China and India. And when the country’s government carried out an ethnic cleansing, the family fled to a refugee camp in neighboring Nepal. In 1995, this was where Sharma was born.

Today, Sharma is a first-year medical student at Indiana University School of Medicine-Fort Wayne. She is just one member of the medical school’s 365-member Class of 2023. But her journey to a white coat at IU—a story of drive and determination—is quite likely the most improbable of her class.

In Nepal, her father’s status as a political enemy in his home country made it unsafe to stay in the refugee settlement. Eventually, the family moved outside. Conditions were poor, the situation risky. “Our water and food had to come from the camps, and going back and forth was dangerous,” Sharma said. “Living outside the camp also meant joining a school was extremely difficult. We were outsiders among our own ethnic people, paperless and without an identity.”

Culture Shock

In 2002, Sharma’s father was granted asylum to live in the United States. Four years later, the rest of the family—Sharma, her mother and her brother—joined him, in Atlanta. For Sharma, then nine years old, the move was a seismic shift.

She arrived unable to speak English, but picked up the language within a few months. Suddenly equipped with the advantages that come with life in the United States, she grappled with her identity. “We were going to school in an affluent area,” she said, “and were bullied a lot by our classmates.”

Every day was a new opportunity, a day better than yesterday, an opportunity to learn and adapt. I’ve lived in this positivity and found great individuals, mentors and teachers along the way who have been supportive of my education.

Rhea Sharma, first-year student, Indiana University School of Medicine–Fort Wayne

Despite the struggles, the sudden exposure to American classrooms awakened in Sharma an insatiable appetite for learning. She felt compelled to make good on her newfound access to an education.

“At times it was very difficult. But every day was a new opportunity, a day better than yesterday, an opportunity to learn and adapt,” she said. “I’ve lived in this positivity and found great individuals, mentors and teachers along the way who have been supportive of my education.”

Heart for Medicine

At several points along the way, Sharma experienced moments that inspired her to pursue a career in medicine. “In Nepal, I witnessed suffering inside and outside of the camps. I could see firsthand the effects of the lack of medicine, and of proper treatment for patients,” she said. “Once in the United States, I knew what it felt like to be an outsider, trying to figure out my identity. All of that made me see how important it was for me to help others.”

After high school, Sharma went to Berea College in Kentucky, majoring in chemistry and minoring in biology. She began exploring the medical professions through the Master of Science in Medicine program at IU School of Medicine.

It proved to be pivotal.

Once in Indianapolis, Sharma sought a family physician for care, and found Kurt Patterson, MD, an IU School of Medicine alumnus and assistant professor of clinical family medicine. Patterson discovered that Sharma had been misdiagnosed on a couple of matters. But he also impressed Sharma simply by taking the time necessary to understand her situation.

“I found humbleness, care and friendship despite our gender, race, and socioeconomic differences,” she said. “He addressed my problems in a manner no other physician had been able to, for one simple reason—he took the time to listen, to care.”

The experience made a lasting impression.

After a year in the Master of Science in Medicine program, Sharma was accepted into IU School of Medicine. She hasn’t decided what specialty to pursue but has a clear vision of the type of physician she intends to become thanks to some wisdom shared by Paul Wallach, MD, the school’s Executive Associate Dean for Educational affairs and Institutional Improvement, during her orientation in the master’s program. “He stated, simply, the goal is to relieve suffering. I have kept his words with me,” Sharma said.

Her long journey led to the United States and IU School of Medicine, and Sharma is grateful.

“I couldn’t be more thankful to be here today. To share my story and how much this institution and the country means to me. Both are places that have given me an identity and accepted me wholeheartedly,” she said. “I’ve witnessed IU’s core values in action, and they have helped to guide me.”