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From Africa to Hershey: Lionel Kankeu Fonkoua’s journey has relied on the support of people around him

UPDATE (5/18/2015): Lionel Kankeu Fonkoua at graduation with his mentor, Dr. Jill Smith.


Original story: 

Editor’s Note: Penn State College of Medicine will hold its 45th commencement ceremony this Sunday, May 17 at Founders Hall on the Milton Hershey School campus. This year, 129 medical students and 76 graduate students will receive degrees.

The commencement address will be delivered by Elizabeth Atnip, medical student class representative and daughter of Dr. Robert Atnip, a Penn State Hershey physician and faculty member, and  Shane A.J. Lloyd, graduate student representative.

Dr. Bradford C. Berk, senior vice president for Health Sciences at the University of Rochester and CEO of the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC), will be the guest speaker. Berk was recruited to URMC in 1998 as chief of the Cardiology Division. He founded URMC’s Aab Cardiovascular Research Institute. Berk then served as chairman of medicine until 2006, when he became CEO.

Penn State Medicine will post photos from commencement next week.

Medical school is tough. It’s even tougher when English is your second language and the support of your family is an ocean way in the capital city of Yaoundé in Cameroon, Africa.

Lionel Kankeu

Lionel Kankeu Fonkoua

For Lionel Kankeu Fonkoua, his success is found in the support he’s received from the people around him since stepping off an airplane in Miami 10 years ago when he was 17. That support has helped shape his journey through his schooling, and now the beginning of his career.

Kankeu Fonkoua is a member of Penn State College of Medicine’s Class of 2015, which graduates this Sunday.

“My story starts with my paternal grandmother passing away from stomach cancer,” Kankeu Fonkoua said. “That’s when I started to learn a little about cancer. I was very intrigued. It’s been a driving force since then.”

After considering attending college in France (Cameroon is a former French colony), he decided to come to the United States.

“When I was leaving, my maternal grandmother gave me about $2,000 — which here may not be a lot, but back home is years of savings — just because she believed in me. That was all she had and she gave it to me.”

Although he grew up in a home with modest means – his father is an engineer and his mother a biologist – it was quite a difference between Cameroon and the United States.

“You could imagine, coming to the United States was very exciting,” he said. “My family was behind me, back in Cameroon, I could barely speak any English. Just getting through customs was a frustrating experience because of the language barrier.”

That language barrier had to be overcome through an intensive six-month English course at St. Thomas University and passing the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam. He passed and entered Miami Dade College to take his general courses and then returned to St. Thomas.

While he had the opportunity to intern in a research lab there, it wasn’t in a cancer lab doing cutting-edge research. So he applied to several summer opportunities in 2008 including Penn State College of Medicine’s Summer Undergraduate Research Internship Program (SURIP), designed for college students who are interested in pursuing a career in the biological sciences.

It would be a turning point, as he worked with Dr. Jill Smith, a gastroenterologist and researcher who is now a professor emeritus.

“I was impressed,” he said. “I loved the faculty here. The research here was amazing. I was lucky enough to work in Dr. Jill Smith’s lab. She was doing both bench and clinical work– translational research. “

This opportunity led to a presentation of his work at a national conference and a publication. Originally planning to get his Ph.D. to conduct research, the experience with translational research changed his path to medical school.

“It really appealed to me to bring findings from the lab to the bedside,” Kankeu Fonkoua said. “If it hadn’t been for the SURIP program and working with Dr. Smith, I don’t think I would be in medical school. She really impacted my career choice.”

While he was accepted to several schools, Penn State College of Medicine’s support system was a perfect fit.

“Dr. Smith was initially an academic mentor but our relationship grew that she’s more like an academic mother now,” he said. “I decided to come back because of that support system. Being here alone without my family, I figured medical school alone is tough.

“As a medical student here, my training was good; the staff, the professors, the quality of the education.  But it’s the supporting environment that’s very important,” Kankeu Fonkoua continued. “That’s not only from the faculty, but also from the different health care workers – the nurses,   the residents, everyone was very supportive.  Even though my family wasn’t here, I felt like there was a whole village rooting for me.”

He’ll keep that support structure while he stays at Penn State Hershey to complete his residency in internal medicine.

“Initially when I went out to interview at other places, I got to appreciate what we have here,” he said.  “There is a collegial environment here that appealed to me. That’s why I picked Hershey again.”

While he plans to stay in the United States after his residency and complete a fellowship in oncology and ultimately continue in cancer research, he’s not forgetting about Cameroon.  While it’s a stable country, it has a large underserved population and a shortage of doctors.

“I know being here at Penn State and being involved in the Global Health Program that people go on mission trips to South America or volunteer to go to Haiti to operate there.  I want to organize something like that once or twice a year to offer care the people can’t get or can’t afford in Cameroon.

“I can’t save the whole country, but I think I can save a few lives.”

It’s his way of thanking those who have helped him along the way.

“A lot of people have done a lot for me to get to this point,” he said. “I thank God first, because a lot of things have happened that I don’t know how I got through it,” he said. “Then I thank all these people who have supported me. I am so grateful to them that the only way I can thank them is to give back, to do the same for other people.”

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