By Ivan Rybkin as told by Rebecca Barcelo
Dad came home excited about a conversation he’d had on the train. “I met this guy whose son is attending school in England,” he told me. “I’m thinking about sending you. Do you want to go?” His question was a little abrupt, but I thought about it. I was 17 and bored with my everyday routine in the Caucasus region of southern Russia. At school people thought I was in a Saturday cult. At home there were homework and chores. “Sure!” I responded.
AT THE TIME, I DIDN’T SPEAK A SINGLE WORD OF ENGLISH. Dad told me he’d give me $2,000, all that he had, to pay for my first couple of months at Newbold College. Then I was on my own. “I’ll buy you a ticket back in six months and if you make it, you make it. If not, then at least you have a ticket to get home.”
With my interest in science and medicine, my dad knew I wouldn’t have a chance in Russia. The medical schools don’t tolerate students who miss Saturdays. As a Seventh-day Adventist, I was going to need to go elsewhere if I wanted to study medicine and still act on my beliefs.
That wasn’t anything new, though. Our family had been struggling with religion in our culture since the time of the Soviets. They had stripped my great-grandfather of most of his property and then informed him that he must either renounce religion or all of his children and grandchildren would be shipped to Siberia. He decided to renounce religion.
FOR A NUMBER OF YEARS AFTER THAT, my family managed to blend in with the rest of the culture until my parents took up Adventism again when I was six years old. My dad went from being a total rebel to a conservative Christian overnight, smoking his last cigarette before walking into the lake to be baptized.
After that, us kids stopped going to school on Saturdays. My teacher started bringing me up front and announcing, “Ivan has decided not to go to school on Saturdays anymore because now he is part of a cult.” I was ridiculed for missing Saturdays from first grade all the way up through high school. By the time my sisters started school, our teachers and friends were used to “more cult members,” but we were definitely not the norm. When my father came home that night talking about sending me to England, I knew it was because he wanted me to learn English and to have better opportunities than he’d had. I’d heard of Loma Linda, and I knew that Christian medical schools existed, but I figured I’d never get there if I didn’t learn English first.
The first time we went to the British embassy to acquire a visa, an official asked how I was going to pay for tuition while in England. My dad simply said that I was going over to study and I’d work once I got there. Apparently that was the wrong thing to say, because they didn’t approve my visa. We tried again and again, with no luck.
I remember my dad praying, “God, if this is your will, we need you to help us out here. Show us what to do.” We went back yet again and met with the same officer. He looked over my documents one more time and said: “Look—as an officer, I cannot possibly let him go. Who knows what your son could be doing over there? As a father, I know you want to give him a good education, so I’m going to let him go.” He signed my paperwork, and I received my first visa.
Arriving in England, I found out that tuition at Newbold College was actually seven and a half thousand pounds per year—six times what I had. I decided
to take on two jobs. For the first eight months, I worked all night, went to school during the day, and slept a few hours in the evenings before beginning the cycle over again. After eight months of this, I was exhausted. I quit both jobs and used the English I had learned to work at a car dealership for the remainder of my time at Newbold.
I finally finished the program, acquired an English proficiency certificate, and came home to Russia. My certificate got me a job doing guest relations at the Marriott Grand Hotel in Moscow, where I had plenty of opportunities to practice my English. I met the prime ministers of Canada, Italy, and Japan, and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. But, while the job was enjoyable, I wasn’t satisfied. I still had that longing to do medicine, and I didn’t know how to make that happen. I thought maybe it was time to visit the United States.
I got a visa that allowed me to travel for three months in the States. I bought a one-month, unlimited Greyhound bus pass and decided to eat at McDonald’s everywhere I went to make my remaining $90 last.
I MADE IT TO NEW YORK and was moving into a hostel there for a couple days when I met a gentleman moving out. He asked what I was doing, and I told him I was going to try to travel across the country.
“Oh, that’s cool,” he said. “Well, here’s $100.” I looked at him dumbfounded. “Why?” I asked. “Because,” he continued, “I like people like you who travel around. Here’s my phone number and address in case you ever need them.” I was speechless. In a daze, I gave him my name and what little contact information I had, and we went our separate ways.
With the money he gave me, I was able to visit a few more states. Then I got a call from him saying he had wired $400 to me via Western Union. “How can that be?” I asked. “I never gave you any bank information!” He responded that all he needed was my name and said, “You might as well go pick it up, because I won’t take it back.”
For the next three months, that same gentleman wired me $400 every five days to support me as I traveled around the country. With his gift, I was able to see Florida and the South, until I finally ended up in Nevada.
At that point, my parents started to worry that I wasn’t really doing anything significant with my life. My father had met a minister, William Liversidge, who was in Russia training pastors at the time. My dad approached him after one of the meetings. “I have a kid who’s in the U.S. right now, wandering around purposelessly,” he told Pastor Liversidge. “If he calls you, can you knock some sense into him so he can get his mind right?” Pastor Liversidge said he’d talk to me.
WHEN MY DAD ASKED ME to call Pastor Liversidge, I balked, but Dad insisted so much, I finally gave in. To my surprise, Pastor Liversidge had just arrived home in Palm Springs, California, and he invited me to have dinner with him.
I figured I might as well go, since he wasn’t that far away, so I got on a bus and went to California.
Over dinner, Pastor Liversidge asked what I planned to do with my life. I told him I was interested in going into medicine but wasn’t really sure if it was going to work out. He said that I would need to enroll in a university in the States and go to medical school after that. This was news to me. I had no idea what the process was to become a doctor in America.
“What if I tell you that I’m going to help sponsor you to get into a college in the United States?” he asked me. I hadn’t been expecting that from him. “I would definitely take you up on that, if you did,” I responded. He offered to let me stay with him in Palm Springs, so we started looking at colleges and universities in the Southern California area. La Sierra University looked interesting, so I decided to put in an application.
Just about then, my visa expired, so I had to go home until I could reapply for another one. After a year of applying, getting rejected, and spending a lot of time and money on the process, I finally hired the best American lawyer in Moscow to see what my chances were of getting into the U.S.
He researched my family and told me, “In all honesty, your chances of receiving a work/study visa to go to California are 25%. It’s extremely unlikely, and if you do get one, call me and let me know, because I want to know how you did it.”
I left discouraged. Studying medicine in America was beginning to look more and more impossible, but I applied again anyway. When I arrived at the U.S. embassy for my appointment, the official asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I told him that I was interested in being a physician. He checked my documents, looked up at me said, “Well, today is your lucky day. Go and be a good doctor.”
I WAS OVERJOYED! I moved to California, and began to attend La Sierra University, which in my opinion, was the most incredible experience of my life. La Sierra’s Honors program contributed immensely to my worldview, broadening my horizons and confirming the importance of God’s role in my life. La Sierra offered me amazing experiences and mentors which I’ll never forget.
I met a host of people at La Sierra who were willing to help me out and mentor me—my biology and chemistry professors, President Wisbey, Pastor Chris Oberg, and many more. Without them—my American family—and Pastor Liversidge, I never would have made it as far as I did.
Then there was Nikki, a girl from Thailand who had classes with me. We immediately hit it off. Whether it was our personalities, or the fact that we were both struggling to make it in the States, we got closer and closer until finally becoming an official couple. Without her encouragement at some of the lowest times of my life, I don’t think I could have kept on toward my dream.
For instance, at the end of my sophomore year, when I researched medical school applications and found out what was required in order to pass the MCAT, I was so depressed! The success rates for international students were extremely low because of language requirements and finances. I felt like giving up, but Nikki leaned over and said, “You know, you can do this, Ivan. I will do everything in my power to help you until you make it there.” That’s all it took. Her words and support were like the switch that snapped me back to life and gave me hope.
I started studying for the MCAT in the summer of 2010, and my practice-test scores for verbal reasoning were too low. I knew I wouldn’t get anywhere unless they improved a lot. At that point, I was desperately praying, “God, you’ve led me this far, but I’m here now and I’m about to take this exam, and my verbal reasoning scores are terrible. Please, help me pass this exam.” I put a lot more effort into it and studied for that section day in and day out until it was finally time to take the test. When I got my scores back, I was elated to find that I’d passed, and actually done quite well!
I submitted my scores to Loma Linda University School of Medicine and shortly after was invited in for an interview. After barely surviving the suspense, I finally received a letter, on December 17, 2010, saying that I’d been officially accepted into the program as a medical student of Loma Linda University. I couldn’t believe that I’d finally achieved my goal!
Yet, when I learned about the financial requirements I’d have to meet as an international student in order to accept the offer of admission, my heart sank. “Where in the world am I going to find that kind of money?” I thought.
Instead of getting overwhelmed, I figured I’d just start trying and see what happened. God had already helped me get so far that I knew He wouldn’t just leave me hanging.
I started by creating a website through which to gather donations. Amazingly, that brought in some funds. Then friends, acquaintances, and even some people I’d never met all pitched in with money to help me with my first year of tuition. I was amazed! Before the deadline, I had raised $85,000 and was able to officially enroll in the Loma Linda University School of Medicine. I couldn’t believe that my dream was actually becoming a reality.
I WALKED INTO CLASS AT LOMA LINDA the first day of medical school and felt a wave of gratitude wash over me as I thought of all the ways God had helped me to arrive at that point. He had worked through so many people. To all of them I feel the obligation to be the best doctor I can possibly become. I scored above average on my first set of tests and emailed my professors at La Sierra, thanking them for their thoroughness and their perseverance in teaching me.
Today, I absolutely love medical school, and though it’s a lot of work, I wouldn’t feel as satisfied in any other field. I truly believe that God has a plan for each of our lives. And this, I believe, was His plan for mine.