Meghan Finnerty | April 14, 2022

Central Africa’s Next Healthcare Hero

International student Joahn Marwin Okoumba is heading to pharmacy school determined to improve health care back home.

Joahn Okumba Odjaga

Being born and raised in Gabon, a small French speaking country in Central Africa, Joahn Marwin Okoumba was young when he started to notice short comings in his country’s education and healthcare systems.

His science classes didn’t have lab materials. Instead of doing an experiment that mixed two substances to make a reaction, he was told to memorize what the reaction would be. When he wanted to learn more about math, outside of the class curriculum, he paid his math teacher with whatever pocket money he had. It took more than a year and a half for orthopedic surgery to be scheduled after he broke and dislocated his shoulder during a game of basketball.

These circumstances highly influenced his path in higher education and career choice. When Okoumba graduates this May from SUNY Brockport, with degrees in Mathematics and Biochemistry, he will start the pharmacy program at the University of Florida. And, ultimately, he hopes to use the skills he develops to make a difference in his home country.

At 17-years-old, Okoumba graduated high school and moved to Brockport, where he spent his first eight months intensively studying English. His family’s plan was for him to spend one year in America and then move to Brazil for the rest of his education. However, that plan fell through. Instead, he chose to enroll at SUNY Brockport as a biochemistry major.

Joahn Okumba Odjaga

Joahn Okoumba Odjaga

“Being a student here has been pretty tough in a sense that I started with no English at all. So, from the very bottom (start) all the way up to here has been very challenging. Sitting in those chemistry, biology, mathematical courses sometimes was tough,” he said. “However, I really met wonderful professors who really turned my experience into a better one. By actually teaching me several values, not only academic values but in a sense, they taught me life … they actually convinced me that anything could be possible regardless of where you come from.”

The first professor to bridge the language barrier with Okoumba was former associate professor Nathan Reff, Ph.D. in the Department of Mathematics.

We could understand each other pretty well, mathematically speaking. Universally 1+1 is 2,” Okoumba said. “He noticed that I had pretty good background knowledge or potential. He saw past the language barrier and really encouraged me to do more and more.”

Okoumba put a lot of pressure on himself to succeed at Brockport, repeatedly telling himself, ‘You cannot make any mistake, no matter what you’re doing you cannot fail, your parents will not have the money, they’re sacrificing a lot.’ He spent many hours studying. “I have a family I need to take care of,” he explained.

So, when he found himself struggling freshman year, he went to meet Markus Hoffmann, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “I was thinking about switching majors because I was doing poorly in one of my biology classes. He didn’t know me, but he gave me a whole hour of his time.”

Hoffmann shared that when he came to the United States from Germany, he also struggled with English. He advised Okoumba not to give up, no matter how tempting.

“That was really meaningful,” Okoumba said.

If you want to get into a specific field the math brings a little kick, it’s an extra value to make you a little tougher when it comes to mathematical application in pharmacy.
Joahn Marwin Okoumba

Okoumba, together with his family, ultimately decided he should pursue a career in pharmacy. He also chose to add math as a second major.

“In pharmacy there are many branches. One could work in pharmacokinetics or pharmacometrics, which require a pretty solid math background. If you want to get into a specific field the math brings a little kick, it’s an extra value to make you a little tougher when it comes to mathematical application in pharmacy,” he explained.

Currently Okoumba’s plan is to finish studying in the United States at the University of Florida and then stay in the U.S. for work. He was accepted into seven different pharmacy programs. Okoumba will not be able to return quickly to Gabon to apply his new skills due to the differences in the American and European systems. However, he plans to return gradually.

I plan to travel back often to Gabon to open local pharmacies and equip them with needed medicines to serve the population better,” he said.