Focus: Destigmatizing Grit and Empowering Dreamers
By Dirk Hoffman
Published April 3, 2023
Fourth-year medical student Daniel Oluwagbemileke Popoola, PhD, hopes his podcast about the true paths to success will inspire and empower listeners.
Speaking of his upcoming MD convocation in April, Popoola says “It is a humbling privilege to see my childhood dreams finally come true after myriad obstacles.”
Born in Nigeria, Popoola has wanted to be a brain doctor since childhood and notes that his parents “did not have much of an education, but they were determined to give my siblings and me that which they could not get.”
He started attending medical school in Nigeria as a teenager, but had to drop out two years into his education due to a lack of funding after his father died of abdominal cancer.
“But God has always showed up, as He did, when I won the visa lottery that same year. God has been very faithful, and in those moments when obstacles threatened to steal my dreams, He has always sent help,” Popoola says. “I came to this country at the lowest point in my life with $5 and a high school diploma and a crystal clear vision of becoming a doctor.
“The journey from $5 in the hands of an immigrant to an MD, PhD, was undoubtedly daunting. On several occasions, it felt impossible to continue and I contemplated quitting more often than I can count,” he adds. “I would not wish the pain and challenges that I have experienced on anyone, but they are some of the strongest motivations for my adamant commitment to the pursuit of success and passion to help others evade such experiences.”
While an undergraduate at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, he had a research poster accepted at a conference he wanted to attend. Popoola says attending that conference ultimately paved the way for him to attend graduate school at Binghamton University and earn a master’s degree in psychology and a doctoral degree in neuroscience.
However, the conference’s cost was prohibitive, and he had to learn to knock down countless doors and learned to get comfortable with several rejections before meeting Kenneth Durgans, Ed.D, who eventually funded his conference registration fee and facilitated the funds for other attendance-related costs.
Since returning from that conference, Popoola says, “I have passionately sought ways to enlighten others to avoid similar struggles and that passion continues to grow with every subsequently surmounted obstacle.”
As Popoola debuts his podcast “Debriefing With The DOPe Doctor” hosted on his online motivational platform “Success Clinic,” he says the inspiration is “the motivational power of story sharing.”
According to him, the most inspiring, soothing and empowering pieces of advice he has received contained the phrase “it is OK, I have been in your shoes…,” and came from mentors who shared their stories in an attempt to encourage him.
When Popoola began his studies at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, he and his wife had two young sons.
“One day my son was in tears because he wanted me to spend about five more minutes with him before I left for school early in the morning,” he says. “I chose to go to campus, but when I got in the car, that guilt overwhelmed me, and I started crying. I was pouring out tears. Even when I walked into the building, I could not hold back those tears.”
He remembers very clearly that Charles M. Severin, MD, PhD, emeritus professor, had heard about him crying and called him to his office.
“He sat me down and told me he had gone through similar experiences when he was in medical school,” Popoola says. “He told me that sometimes he would have to take lecture notes to study while he was attending a sporting event his children were participating in. In between cheering for his child, he would be studying his notes in the bleachers.”
The late Jonathan D. Daniels, MD, also took time to console Popoola.
“He heard about it as well and the next time he saw me on campus, he pulled me into his office. He shared a similar story about raising his daughters when he was a medical student,” Popoola says. “He said ‘sometimes you have to be selfish so you can be there for the people that you care about in the future.’”
Dori R. Marshall, MD, associate dean and director of medical admissions, also talked to Popoola about what it was like for her attending medical school while she was a mother.
“These words calmed me down, knowing that these people had gone through this as well,” he says. “All of those people gave me the hope to pick myself up and continue pushing hard simply by sharing their stories.”
Subsequently, he decided to pay this forward by co-founding the PASS (Parents and Spouse Students) Club at the Jacobs School, which has expanded into a support group and resource that is currently serving its fourth cohort of medical students with family responsibilities.
With his podcast recorded in a sixth-floor studio in the Jacobs School building, Popoola intends to amplify efforts to pay forward the support that has made his achievements possible.
After serving as a mentor for over a decade, he realized that for every referred mentee, there were several others who had no access to referral services and were drowning in their challenges.
“I am saddened by, and tired of seeing dreamers, intelligent people, and individuals with great potentials surrender their beautiful dreams to seemingly insurmountable obstacles,” he says.
This inspired him to establish “Success Clinic,” the freely accessible online motivational platform that hosts his podcast.
“Unfortunately, people often feel as if they are alone in the world when they are going through tough times,” Popoola says. “I hope such folks from across the globe, especially in socioeconomically challenged and historically undermined communities and countries like my roots can join at no cost and find motivation from the resources provided to power and pursue their dreams.”
Popoola also intends the podcast as a quasi-therapy session for his guests, a period of self-reflection for letting out the steam, which is often long overdue.
According to him, “so many things go into what I call ‘the grit’ — the real parts of our stories that most people never know about — that our daily activities and the need to uphold our success mask. I see this as an opportunity for the guests to sit down for one hour and really reflect on the truths in their journeys.”
Popoola says he defines success as “where you find yourself and you feel you are fulfilling your purpose.”
“I have found redemption in the arms of people who have encouraged and empowered me based on their experiences with the same or similar situations,” he says. “My goal is to see people rise up to the fullness of their potential.”