Rafal Sobota, MD, PhD

In eighth grade, Rafal Sobota took off in a plane from Poland to begin the next chapter of his life. His destination was the south side of Chicago, where he would live in the home of his stepfather, in a largely Puerto Rican neighborhood. Surrounded by new languages and customs, he did his best to “assimilate on the fly.” The following year Rafal started high school, where he enrolled in a rigorous program of IB courses. Though English was an obstacle, he was unquestionably gifted. Even at his young age, he knew he would pursue a career in medicine—a calling that had come to him after witnessing the fading health of loved ones in the past.

But when Rafal was accepted to the University of Chicago his senior year, he didn’t know if he would be able to attend. “We were by no means well off. We just couldn’t afford it without financial help.” With assistance from his school and from the Wentcher Foundation, Rafal was able to accept the University’s invitation. For the next four years he would complete a dual major in chemistry and biochemistry, while continuing to support himself with a side-job that took up to thirty hours per week of his time.

Rafal’s story doesn’t end at graduation. You might say it was just getting started. Around this time, Rafal felt an urge to respond to the world’s problems. And he acted on it. Rafal began with shorter trips—rebuilding in New Orleans, agroforestry in Senegal—until he found a project that would keep him busy for several years: the creation of a school in Kenya.

The project began in his first year of graduate school, when a fellow student told him about a nonprofit he’d created to bring a school to a small Kenyan village. Rafal quickly joined the effort—raising funds, writing grants, collecting laptops, and making plans for construction. This was all taking place, mind you, while he pursued an MD, PhD, and master's degree in public health from Vanderbilt University.

While in school, Rafal had the opportunity to travel to Kenya, where he helped build the school from the ground up. “The physical work is very fulfilling,” he told us. “You can look at something that’s there that wasn’t there before.” Rafal and his friends brought electricity to the school, they participated in teacher trainings, and helped to supply the school’s library with 1,700 books. While there, Rafal conducted interviews with students and teachers about the work they had done with the nonprofit. “They expressed a similar emotion toward us that I’d felt toward Wentcher Foundation. That same gratitude.” As Rafal so aptly put it, “It’s a neat experience to see it all come around full circle.”