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Grit and determination lead Cornish to med school

As a high school sophomore, it dawned on Takayhlia “TK” Cornish ’19 that if she were going to realize her dream of becoming a doctor one day, she needed to up her game. Marion (S.C.) High School didn’t offer many advanced-placement classes, and the mature-beyond-her-years Cornish had a feeling she’d need better prep for the tough biology classes she’d encounter in college.

She got her parents’ blessing to attend the South Carolina Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics for her last two years of high school and set off for the boarding school in the fall of 2013 ready to join some of the brightest young science minds in the state.

“I thought I knew what I was doing, and I thought I was really smart until I got there,” Cornish says. “Reality check.”

Early in her first semester she had tests in U.S. history and chemistry, both A.P. courses, on the same day. Cornish, already feeling pinched by the increased workload, decided to concentrate on history. She made a 20. On her chemistry test, she made a 45 – “and that was with a 15-point curve.”

“My college-freshman-year punch in the face happened my junior year of high school,” she says.

What could have spelled disaster ultimately worked to Cornish’s benefit. Rather than calling home in tears, Cornish decided to approach her professors to see what she could do. They worked with her on her note-taking and study habits, and Cornish spent the rest of the semester figuring out what it would take to make it out of there alive.

She graduated with a 3.5 grade-point average, and the trial by fire prepared her well for the difficult biology courses she’d face at Wingate University. In May she graduated from Wingate with an even higher GPA, and this month she starts medical school at the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine (VCOM) in Spartanburg, S.C.

“It was a struggle, but it taught me that I could handle a lot,” she says of her last two years of high school. “We were taking probably 18 to 20 credit hours per semester (at Governor’s School). When I got to college and realized that most students take 15 credit hours, I was like, ‘Oh, you’ve got this. You can handle this.’”

At Wingate, Cornish found a situation similar to the one she faced at Governor’s School. Not the poor initial grades, but professors who were eager to guide her through college and on to the next phase of her life. Before move-in day her freshman year, Cornish participated in Wingate’s summer BIOS program, which helps biology students make a smooth transition from high school to college. That’s where she learned about what at the time was a budding partnership between Wingate and VCOM. The agreement gives Wingate biology students who maintain a high GPA guaranteed entry into VCOM, without requiring them to take the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test).

Cornish leapt at the chance.

“I did not want to take that test,” she says. “I hated the SAT and the ACT. The MCAT’s no better. I see people studying for it all stressed out and I’m like, ‘I’m glad I don’t have to do that. Thank you, Jesus.’”

Being accepted to VCOM is the next step in what has been a lifelong mission for Cornish. A visit to her pediatrician as an 8-year-old set Cornish on the road to medicine. She appreciated the connection she had with her local doctor, and, because she always enjoyed science, the field seemed a natural fit for her. In the past 14 years she’s never veered from that course.

And she knew early on that she wanted to be a doctor, not a nurse.

“I like being the person who makes the decision,” she says. “Nine times out of 10 I do things based off of my intuition. I don’t want to have a good idea and then I can’t make it happen because I’m not the one making the call. I love being the head of the team.”

It’s not hard to see Cornish taking on a leadership role. She’s reserved to a point, but, as she says, she can “turn it on” when she needs to. It’s why she was such an excellent lead tutor in the Academic Resource Center and what made her so effective as the president of the Sigma Gamma Ro sorority.

Such opportunities might not have presented themselves at the universities Cornish was initially interested in attending. In high school, Cornish visited UNC, Duke, N.C. State and other large schools. Then she toured Wingate.

“This campus is really good about getting people when they get here. They get you,” she says with a laugh. “You walk on the campus and it’s beautiful.”

It was also the right size for Cornish, who relished the one-on-one interaction with Wingate professors.

“I was applying to all these big schools, like I didn’t know what type of person I was and the type of learning environment I was used to,” she says. “I came from Marion, a really small school. And the things I loved about the Governor’s School were that it was small, that there was a family dynamic, that the professors really knew who I was and cared about my learning and wanted to see me progress. It was like I was trying to go to all these big schools where I wasn’t going to get that same type of environment where I thrive.”

Thrive she has. Cornish was a diligent undergrad student, always motivated by her childhood dream, and she graduated with a 3.68 GPA.

Practically living in the Bridges Science Building, Cornish found surrogate parents in the Biology Department. She credits access to Dr. Erica Niland’s coffee maker for keeping her wired as a sophomore (and Niland for being a great advisor), while Dr. Acchia Albury and Dr. Debra Davis provided a tough-love maternal presence.

“They remind me of home,” Cornish says. “They’re both from the Caribbean, and my mom’s Jamaican. They take me back home. It reminds me of my roots. They’re like those stern Jamaican parents who make you realize those things you don’t want to realize about yourself. They tell it to you. They’re like that harsh opinion that I need here, to get my head back on straight.”

Albury’s classes have been especially tough and rewarding, Cornish says. Bio 311, or Anatomy and Physiology, is full of students heading to physical-therapy and physician-assistant programs and, like Cornish, to med school. As a result, Albury makes sure the information she imparts corresponds to real-life situations, and her tests are difficult, most consisting of essay and fill-in-the-blank questions.

“I made a B in that class, and I’m proud of that B,” Cornish says. “It taught me so much about myself and what I can take and how I can apply that to the next level.”

Albury praises Cornish’s maturity and work ethic. “TK is ambitious and a true force to be reckoned with,” says Albury, who had Cornish in two classes. “Though she possesses a natural prowess, she exudes immense grit. She is wise beyond her age and it is exemplified in her approach to her coursework, her ability to manage her extracurricular activities and her commitment to her love ones.”

Albury and the rest of Wingate’s Biology Department won’t be at VCOM, of course, and that gives Cornish pause. Will she be prepared for the speed at which material is thrown her way? Will she be able to absorb everything? Will she be able to handle the stress?

Her nerves found some relief at VCOM’s accepted-students day, where current students told her not to worry. “You’re not going to know everything,” they told her, meaning she’ll take in as much as she needs to survive.

But something still makes Cornish a little anxious. She’s stepping up a level, and she doesn’t know when her “med-school moment” is coming.

“I hate not knowing,” she says. “I just want to know. When am I going to get punched in the face, and how is it going to happen?

“I think I’ve learned to recover better. I might get punched, but I don’t think I’ll fall.”