Ahmed Mohamed was 6 years old when he and his family arrived in Rochester as part of the first wave of Somali immigrants in 1996. His knowledge of English at the time consisted of three words.
By the time he had reached medical school, Mohamed had become the pride of many in Rochester's Somali-American community. They began to call him doctor, despite his protestations at the time that he had yet to earn his degree.
Today, Mohamed is a doctor, a resident physician in Mayo Clinic's Department of Internal Medicine, one of a tiny handful of Somali-American doctors at the clinic. And to those who have witnessed his progress, it hasn't come as a great surprise.
Despite a starting point well back of his native-born peers, Mohamed doesn't convey a sense that he faced more challenges and struggles than any other person.
Yes, there was a language barrier at first, but by fourth grade, Mohamed had mastered English well enough to graduate from the district's English for Speakers of Other Languages program. Yes, belonging to a minority immigrant community in majority-white Rochester did lead to an occasional fight but only when it became necessary.
"Going back to first grade, I was very good studen,t and I never disrupted class," Mohamed said. "I rarely said anything. I was quiet in class up until I got into med school."
Yet his mild and his soft-spoken manner belie a relentless drive and sharp mind, teachers and mentors say.
"He was just a wonderful student," said retired Mayo High School history teacher Larry Fowler, who taught Mohamed in 10th grade. "He was just a really bright kid."
Mohamed credits his success to his parents, who instilled within him high expectations. Both preached education's power to achieve one's dreams. His dad, Abdullahi Hassan, was an agronomist in Mogadishu who spoke five languages before civil war forced the family to flee.
As a boy, he and his brothers were expected to have their homework finished before they could go out and play. Sometimes his mom, Khadija Naji, would insist on him reading a book before he could join his friends.
"I think they kept a pretty good leash on us," Mohamed said. "We never really wandered outside of within eyesight of the house."
Mohamed said the idea of becoming a doctor first began to impress itself on him in his teens. His first extended exposure to doctors came when he would accompany his grandmother on her doctor's visits. Blessed with a sharp memory, he was able to recall and relay everything the doctor said about his grandmother's care to his mom.
It was seeing the care that doctors provided and the clear benefits his grandmother received that created the impetus to become a doctor. That coupled with a discovery that he was fascinated with science — and "learning about living things and how they work" — drove him.
Mohamed said he was neither daunted nor particularly preoccupied with the fact that African-Americans are woefully under-represented in the medical field. While more black men have graduated college over the past few decades, the number of black men applying to medical school dropped from 1978 to 2014.
"I just wanted to pursue becoming a doctor on my own," he said. "I made a detailed plan for what i wanted to accomplish each year of college."
'100 percent committed'
While a student at the University of Minnesota, Mohamed was introduced to Eddie Mairura, a Kenyan-born man who is now an orthopedic surgeon in Dallas. At the time that he started mentoring Mohamed, Mairura was a medical student at the U when Mohamed was working on his undergraduate degree.
Mairura's own experiences in medical school underscored the demographic challenges facing blacks. In his own medical class of 220 people at the U, there were only four black people. Mairura hoped to be a guide, opening the door wider for minority students.
"I think medicine is really about giving back. When people achieve success, they don't celebrate by themselves, they got there by standing on the shoulders of other people," Mairura said.
Mairura found Mohamed to be a person with no shortage of determination and motivation — "100 percent committed" to becoming a doctor. Mairura set him up on job shadowing opportunities and recommended certain courses that he take. Mohamed picked his brain whenever he could.
"He was very very focused," Mairura said. "I've mentored a lot of people, but I think he's the only one that makes me look good. I laid out a road map for him and then stepped out of the way or (risked getting) run over."
Graduating from medical school at Michigan State University was an occasion for celebration. But it was also a bittersweet moment for Mohamed. His dad was hospitalized at Mayo Clinic suffering complications from leukemia.
Though weak and struggling to speak, his dad gave Mohamed a thumbs up when Mohamed told him about his job interview opportunities, including an offer at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, which was his top choice.
One of Mohamed's mentors who was also visiting the hospital at the time told Mohamed's dad, "you did it," acknowledging his influence as a role model in Mohamed's life. But his dad quietly raised his hand and pointed to Mohamed as if to say, "he deserves the credit." Mohamed's dad died a week later.
As a first-year resident, Mohamed divides his time between seeing patients as a primary care physician at the Baldwin Building and rotating through sub-specialties, such as cardiology and neurology.
Mohamed, 27, is cognizant of his responsibilities as a role model for his community. With his country still trying to rise from the ashes of a civil war and public perceptions often defined by media portrayals of Somali terrorists, he hopes to offer a counterbalance to those views.
In the same way that mentors have offered shoulders for him to stand on, so he hopes to do the same for others.
At Somali public gatherings, parents will approach Mohamed seeking advice for their college-bound children. They'll ask for his phone number, so he can talk to their kids.
"It does motivate me, because I want to see younger kids in the community achieve success, whether it's in medicine or something else," Mohamed said. "And the advice that I give younger kids in the community is, do something you enjoy doing."