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Stephanie Nwagwu | CU School of Medicine | Match Day 2022

CU Medical Student Stephanie Nwagwu Pursues Her Passion for Public Health 

The fourth-year student awaits her OBGYN residency with a particular interest in slowing rates of Black maternal morbidity and mortality. 

minute read

Written by Greg Glasgow on March 8, 2022
What You Need To Know

This story is part of the University of Colorado School of Medicine’s Match Day coverage. Match Day 2022 is on March 18.

Even during her toughest days of medical school, when long nights of studying turned into long days on her feet in the hospital, one thing kept Stephanie Nwagwu going: her passion to care for underserved communities. 

It’s a passion that led to several twists and turns during her medical school career, including taking a year off to earn a master’s in public health (MPH) at Harvard University, and being promoted to national chairperson of the Student National Medical Association (SNMA), an organization she first joined as an undergraduate at Baylor University in Texas. 

“I was elected chapter president of the SNMA at CU, then I went on to be regional director for two years,” says Nwagwu, a fourth-year student at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. “Now I manage the entire corporate operations of the national organization while trying to balance being a fourth-year medical student. But for me, the mission of SNMA is really one worth fighting for. Our mission is to support the needs of underrepresented minority premedical and medical students, as well as serve underserved communities and increase the number of clinically excellent, socially conscious, and culturally competent physicians.” 

Personal connections lead to medicine 

Nwagwu also was influenced by her family’s health care experiences. She was introduced to the medical field by her mother, a pharmacist who graduated from the University of Colorado’s Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmacy Science.  

“I was in middle school when I came to the Anschutz campus for the first time to watch my mom cross the stage and get hooded,” she says. “I dreamt of the day I would walk across the same stage and be hooded as well. My mom always encouraged me to work hard towards my goals, and since my mom did it, I knew it was possible for me too.” 

Understanding the needs of underserved communities 

Working rotations at Denver Health and volunteering at the student-run DAWN Clinic in Aurora opened Nwagwu’s eyes to the needs of underserved communities. As she awaits Match Day and the reveal of where she will train as a resident, she looks forward to learning more about those needs and how to address them. 

“My top five programs all have very strong and compelling cases for serving underserved communities, especially when it comes to serving Black and Brown patients,” she says. “As a Black woman, I'm really interested in Black maternal morbidity and mortality and how the structures that are set in place in hospital systems and the greater community and society at large really hinder Black women from getting the care that they deserve and need to be able to have successful pregnancies.” 

Recent research from the Maryland Population Research Center at the University of Maryland found that Black women are more than three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women. The majority of those deaths were due to postpartum cardiomyopathy (a form of heart failure), and the blood pressure disorders preeclampsia and eclampsia. 

Focus on public health 

Her interest in Black maternal mortality and morbidity led Nwagwu to pursue a residency in obstetrics and gynecology, an area that combines her medical interests with her interests in public health. 

“I always knew I wanted to be an OBGYN coming into medical school, because I had shadowed a Black OBGYN as an undergraduate student, and I loved it,” she says. “I really wanted to be a surgeon, and I really loved women's health. I wanted to be able to advocate when it came to maternal morbidity and mortality and help to change the numbers and the outlooks on that. I think OBGYN is really well situated for advocacy work in the in the realms that I'm interested in.” 

Nwagwu enters her residency with an informed view on the challenges facing underserved communities thanks to her MPH. She pursued the degree after being inspired by an attending physician who supervised her during a rotation at Denver Health. 

“I had an attending there who was really interested in health care administration and systems-level thinking about the way our hospital policies affect the outcomes of our patients,” Nwagwu says. “I thought it would be really cool to go and get a master’s, to take a break from medical school and look at the health system in a different light — more of a business light and a public health focus light.” 

Seeds of success 

In addition to her SNMA leadership role and her detour to Harvard, Nwagwu looks back at her time in medical school with particular gratitude for mentors like Shanta Zimmer, MD, senior associate dean for education and associate dean for diversity and inclusion at the CU School of Medicine, and Regina Richards, PhD, MSW, vice chancellor of the Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Community Engagement for the CU Anschutz Medical Campus.  

“Dr. Richards was a huge mentor for me even before I started medical school,” Nwagwu says. “I met her at an SNMA conference when I was a premedical student, and I expressed to her that I really wanted to come to CU. She was a very strong advocate for me, and was one of those faculty members who really helped me through my journey.” 

It was that combination of experiences and personal relationships that carried Nwagwu through medical school and prepared her for the challenges of residency. 

“I look back at the leadership, professional, personal, and character development that I went through over these last five years in medical school, and it really has changed my perspective on life,” she says. “It's made me a stronger advocate for myself and for my patients. It was never easy, and there were definitely times where I felt like I didn't want to continue in medical school, that it was just too hard, but I always remembered, even in the hardest moments, that there was something worth fighting for. At the end of the day, I really want to be there for my patients.” 

Nwagwu matched at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Maryland.