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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

When Opportunity Knocked During Her College Career, ODU Graduate Cherese Lewis Was Quick to Answer

Since arriving at Old Dominion University from Richmond four years ago, Cherese Lewis has operated by this credo: There's nothing more expensive than a missed opportunity.

With that in mind, the 22-year-old, who will graduate May 10 with a degree in public health - and an eye on medical school - has taken advantage of every opportunity that has come her way during her time at ODU.

"I've worked two and three jobs the whole time. I've been a resident assistant, a tutor. I've wanted to do anything that could give me more experiences," said Lewis, who will graduate with a 3.9 grade point average.

Lewis has been a Gates Millennium Scholar since 2010, having received a good-through-graduation scholarship that's presented to top students in fields of societal need like teaching, public health and engineering. Only 1,000 students in the country receive Gates Millennium Scholarships every year, which are awarded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Medical school is Lewis' long-term goal. She has been mentored by Devon Taylor, who graduated as ODU's Outstanding University Scholar in 2012 and is in his second year at Harvard Medical School.

From Taylor, Lewis has received invaluable peer counseling, which he asked that she repay by offering her own mentorship and service to others.

Lewis had an internship last December in Sierra Leone, Africa, at the Planned Parenthood Association and Marie Stopes International. She conducted consultations and examinations pertaining to family planning, prenatal care and sex education.

Her efforts have not gone unnoticed. Doug Mills, a visiting assistant professor of biological sciences, said Lewis is truly impressive.

"Cherese is committed to the relentless pursuit of personal growth, service to others and excellence in all phases of life. Cherese has, is and will continue to improve our world. I certainly have been fortunate to interact with her during our time together at ODU," Mills said.

For the past school year, Lewis worked as an algebra readiness instructor with Portsmouth Public Schools.

Many of the middle school students she instructed were taller than Lewis, who stands at 4 feet 11 inches. Nonetheless, she was a commanding presence in the classroom and helped the kids in a big way. The experience was invaluable to her, as well, and will make her a better doctor, Lewis said.

"It's been so rewarding. A lot of the students have ADHD or are bipolar. Many come from difficult home situations. And algebra isn't easy for anyone," she said. "It's taught me patience. And you can see the immediate result of your hard work. It's so exciting. When they figure out something, they're so happy they're a little out of control, to say the least.

"I didn't start out good at math myself, so I can completely understand."

Lewis is outstanding at math now, along with many other subjects. She hopes to become an internal medicine specialist, working in infectious disease, and would love to help find a cure for diseases like HIV, "which affect some of the most vulnerable people in society," she said.

Lewis conducted islet cell transplantation research at the Hume-Lee Transplant Center at Virginia Commonwealth University in summer 2011, investigating the transplantation of the pancreas as a way to treat type 1 diabetes. She also conducted HIV research as an intern at the Yerkes Primate Research Institute at Emory University the following summer, investigating the protective functions of cytotoxic T cells in early HIV infection.

This fall, Lewis will work full time as a math teacher at Churchland Middle School in Portsmouth, and will apply to medical school the following fall.

She said she has loved her experience at ODU, particularly the opportunities it provided. "It's been great. The most rewarding thing has been being a resident assistant, helping be a guide to other students," Lewis said.

"It's so interesting that younger students have said they think of me as a role model. I just think of myself as a nerd who makes being smart cool."