As successful college students go, there are those brilliant learners for whom every big break seems to come easily.
And then there’s Wayne State University senior James Wairagu, an academic superstar who’s made a habit of actively chasing down opportunity wherever he might find it.
The son of Kenyan immigrants, Wairagu has enjoyed a journey that has led him from Africa to New York to Georgia to, finally, Wayne State. Along the way, he’s chased dreams that have taken him from 20,000 feet above Earth right down into the heart of Detroit, from taking college AP courses during high school to the being on the verge of joining the M.B.A. program at the Mike Ilitch School of Business — and, if all goes according to plan, those dreams will eventually lead him to Wayne State’s School of Medicine.
And lest anyone forget, Wairagu, who’s set to graduate in May with his bachelor’s in neuroscience, is only 20 years old.
“Education is very important in my family,” Wairagu explained. “My dad, my mom, they both stressed education. That was number one. My dad would tell me the stories of the kids he went to school with back in Kenya. Some didn't take their education seriously and, unfortunately, that impacted their future. I'm hearing this as a kid. It wasn't forced down me, but the point was made, in a strategic way, that this was important. And it was reinforced. I knew the importance of going to school.”
And that meant not just waiting on the chances that came to him because of his grades and work ethic, but actively going after them. When Wairagu talks of “pursuing” his education, it’s hard not to take him literally.
After arriving in the United States when he was about a year old, Wairagu and his family settled first in Binghamton, New York, where his father completed his Ph.D. studies in chemistry. When Wairagu got older, the family moved to Pennsylvania, then to suburban Savannah, Georgia, where Wairagu enrolled in high school — and soon went searching for ways to take college classes at the same time.
“I dual-enrolled at Georgia Southern University during my senior year of high school,” Wairagu recalled. “I had taken AP classes from freshman year, like AP biology, AP chemistry, very challenging courses. They made me realize that college is something difficult, but that I could try my best and perform well if I gave it everything I had. So, I managed to pass my AP exams, and I got to be on a college campus my entire senior year of high school.”
Wairagu said dual enrollment gave him a raft of college credits by the time he graduated high school and, just as importantly, provided early insight into the social realities of education at the next level.
“I realized right away that college is different from high school,” he said. “In high school, I'd wake up at 5:55 in the morning, and I'd be in school all the way till 4 p.m. But when I was dual-enrolling, I had class at 10 a.m. and then maybe I had class at 2 p.m. and I had to fill in the time. It gave me a sense of flexibility but also showed me that I would have to keep track of myself, manage my calendar and make sure I got myself to where I needed to be.”
Despite knowing how to get where he needed to be, the precocious high schooler still needed to figure out exactly where he wanted to go.
“The next big step after high school was, ‘what do I want to do?’” Wairagu said. “I always knew I wanted to be a doctor, but I have a habit of challenging things. If I believe in something, I want to challenge it first, to make sure that I really believe it. The way I challenged that dream was that I considered being a pilot.”
True to form, Wairagu didn’t just pontificate about the option. He went out and found a way to get himself into a cockpit as quickly as possible.
“One bit of advice I would give to anybody is, if you're considering something, go get a taste of it first,” he said. “So what I did was, I joined the Civil Air Patrol, which is an auxiliary group of the United States Air Force. And I actually got to fly a plane.”
Wairagu spoke modestly about his pilot experience — “it sounds a lot cooler than it really is,” he said, “although it is cool” — but he said his time flying planes was invaluable if, for no other reason, it showed him what he didn’t want to pursue as a career.
“It showed me I liked planes, but I realized that I didn't want to do that for the rest of my life,” he said. “I didn't want to be told that, ‘Hey, you need to fly 250 people from here to here,’ and for that to be my job every day. I'd do it maybe on a Saturday, if I had the financial means. I could get my own small little plane. But I got to try it. I got to see whether this was something I would want to do, and I realized that it isn’t.”
And so, his journey continued. Next up, Wairagu said, was his curiosity about medicine. After arriving in the U.S., his mother had gone from teaching in school to working as a registered nurse, and she’d deeply influenced her son’s ambitions.
“My mom is an advocate for anybody to be a nurse,” he said. “She'd tell me that it is very impactful. Not only do you have a job and not only are you able to provide for your family, but you're helping people. You're making a difference. These are people who are sick, and you're bringing them back to their families. If their quality of life isn't that good, you're improving their quality of life. Hearing that from my mom got me interested.”
Soon, Wairagu was volunteering at a hospital, working across the occupational therapy, physical therapy and oncology departments.
“Even back then, I was very inquisitive, so I was always asking the physical therapists, occupational therapists and the radiologists questions: ‘What's this? What's that? Why do you use this machine?’
“It really was a welcoming environment. People started to know my name. Even just getting a blanket for a patient who was going through chemotherapy, I could see how appreciative they were. I realized I much preferred to be in the hospital interacting than being at the airport and in a cockpit.”
By the time he wrapped up his time at the hospital, Wairagu was already applying to colleges. He’d done well on his standardized tests but, as he gazed at the academic road ahead, he realized that he wasn’t certain about the route he needed to take to break into medicine. Once again, he began plotting a path to his next big opportunity.
“My dad's a Ph.D. in chemistry, but he's not a doctor; he doesn't know how to get into medical school,” Wairagu said. “So, me and one of my best friends — who also wanted to be a doctor — just went on Google and started searching how to be a doctor. We were trying to figure it out. What is an MCAT? Why do I have to take that test? We started researching everything.”
As they did, Wairagu recalled, the young men stumbled upon information about “B.S./M.D. programs,” advanced undergraduate programs that allow students pursuing a bachelor of science to also prepare to enroll in medical school for a doctor of medicine degree.
“When I heard about B.S./M.D. programs, I remember I sent it to my best friend. I'm like, ‘We got to apply for this.’ Turns out there's B.S./M.D. programs all across the country. There's some in Texas. There were two in Georgia. There's some in almost every state you can think of.”
To Wairagu’s pleasant surprise, he learned that there also was one such program in Detroit — the Wayne Med-Direct program established by Wayne State President M. Roy Wilson eight years ago to draw some of the nation’s best and brightest students to the School of Medicine.
“Spoiler alert: That’s where I ended up,” said Wairagu. “The program had a nice financial aid package and it was going to put me in medical school. And it seemed like the program really cared about improving health inequities. That's a mission I can get behind."
Having joined the program in early 2020, Wairagu quickly become a top student. He is currently a Department of Neuroscience honors student. He’s the former vice president of the university chapter of Nu Rho Psi, the National Honor Society in Neuroscience. He’s worked as an ophthalmic scribe — an ophthalmologist’s assistant — at the prestigious Kresge Eye Institute. And he’s developed a more nuanced view of the medical profession.
“Working at Kresge, I realized that there's so much business in medicine,” he said. “There are so many things when it comes to insurance companies, insurance models, pharmaceutical companies. For instance, there is a huge disparity between two main drugs we use at Kresge. Even if a doctor wants all of her patients to get the nicer drug, not all the patients have the insurance that will accept that drug. Unfortunately, it's expensive, so insurance companies don't want it. Sometimes we have to literally put in the note that a patient will go blind if you don't give them this better medication. And sometimes they still don't want to listen.
“That's when it dawned upon me that, really, medicine is a business. This is a bunch of numbers. I'm not going to point fingers at who's bad and who's not. But there's a lot of complicated factors that go into it. And it's not as simple as the doctor saying, ‘This patient needs this, let's get them this.’ There's so much going on the backend. So, I took my initial interest in business and once I started working there, I started thinking about the possibility of getting an M.D./M.B.A.”
To that end, Wairagu said he’s going to put off medical school for a year to sign up for an M.B.A. program at Wayne State’s Mike Ilitch School of Business. He will enroll in medical school at Wayne State — where, as a top Med-Direct participant, he’s already been accepted — once he completes his studies at the Ilitch School.
But his time at Wayne State has meant more than just a great education, Wairagu said. Becoming a Warrior has broadened his life’s outlook, as has his time as a Detroiter. A member of student groups like Temple Campus Ministries, the Wayne African Student Society and the Black Student Union, Wairagu said he has made fast friends, found committed mentors and cultivated a deep sense of mission.
“My college experience has been impactful, to say the least,” Wairagu said. “Coming to Wayne State has really changed my perspective on so many things. You meet people with different ideas, from different backgrounds. We can talk about different things. Sometimes we'll talk about the city and the problems we see in the city, or the good things we see in the city, things we want to do, ideas we have. The diversity I see here in Detroit is not the diversity that I had back in Savannah. Being able to interact with that diversity and get to know people from different cultures and different perspectives really opened my mind. I'm so grateful to the city of Detroit. I'm so grateful for every opportunity that Wayne State has provided me, every blessing, every challenge, every hard test, every social interaction.”
Wairagu said he’s not certain what lies ahead after completing medical school. But there’s no doubt that he’ll be on the hunt for his next opportunity as soon as possible. And he promised to take the lessons learned at Wayne State University with him wherever he goes.
“If I can take my career to the next level as a physician, however it happens,” he said. “Being able to be a part of what’s going on in this city and here at Wayne State has just been amazing.”