COLUMBIA — Maria Omondi has always had a goal beyond playing volleyball.
“Growing up, I’ve always wanted to be a doctor,” Omondi said. “I’ve always been fascinated with medicine."
Omondi, a junior middle hitter for Columbia College volleyball, grew up in Nairobi, Kenya. Omondi has recorded 346 kills and 162 blocks this season for the Cougars, who won the American Midwest Conference tournament on Saturday. Omondi was named a first-team All-AMC member, and also earned academic all-conference recognition.
She became interested in medicine at an early age, and said her father would let her pretend to be a doctor whenever someone was sick. He let her deliver medicine to sick family members.
Something Omondi is certain of is where she wants to work after medical school.
“I know I’m going to work back home (in Kenya),” Omondi said. “I will work here for a little bit to get experience right after I graduate so that I can build myself. After I establish myself, I will go home because that’s what I’ve always wanted to do. I think I’m more needed there than here.”
Omondi said that though there are many qualified surgeons in Kenya, the health care system is not what it is in the U.S., and some people may go untreated because of a lack of money.
“I feel like, you know, there’s poor people everywhere,” Omondi said. “There’s poor people here, there’s poor people in Kenya, but I want to work where I’m from. You can go everywhere, but you can’t forget your source.”
After she finished high school in Kenya, Omondi decided to come to the U.S. to play volleyball and earn an education, a decision she said wasn’t made easily.
“Coming here, I knew I was coming to play volleyball, but I’m coming to be a student athlete, not just an athlete,” Omondi said. “I wasn’t planning on changing my goals. I still wanted to come and do medicine.”
In Kenya, students can chose to study pre-med in high school, then enter medical school directly thereafter. A four-year college pre-med degree is not necessary.
“It’s a calculated risk that I took,” Omondi said. “It’s going to take longer, but I’ll still get there.”
Omondi is considering several options for medical school once her time at Columbia College is complete. MU, Washington University and the University of Illinois - Chicago are schools Omondi is considering.
Omondi said she plans on visiting UIC during spring break.
“I like big cities,” Omondi said. “I’m a city girl”
Cougars coach Melinda Wrye-Washington sees the potential in Omondi to accomplish her goals, whether on the court or off.
"Whatever she's put her mind to since she's been here in the states, she has accomplished," Wrye-Washington said. "She works hard, so I think whatever she tackles she's going to be one of the best at it."
Wrye-Washington is also confident in Omondi's medical potential.
"She's going to be taking care of me someday," she said laughing. "She's brilliant, she's athletic, and she has a great work ethic."
The education for medical students in Kenya is different from the U.S. in a few ways, Omondi explained. Since the climates are unlike each other, different diseases and medical issues affect the people, which causes the need for specified treatments.
“I’ll take classes for that even after I’ve become a doctor here, because it’s a different climate so there are different pests, different diseases,” Omondi said. “I do think here there are other things I would learn about, where as I wouldn’t learn in Kenya. So I think it’s a give and take, both ways.”
Omondi says she is conflicted on what area of medicine she wants to pursue.
"I knew I wanted to go into the medical field," she said, "but then I grew up more and decided ‘OK, surgery is what I want to do.' I've thought about cardiology because the heart fascinates me for some reason. But that's still a question mark."
Omondi says she feels her education might take too much time to complete if she focuses on heart surgery. Some things, said Omondi, are much more important than a job and money.
"I do want to have a family someday," Omondi said. "I don't want to stay in school forever."
And what about the money?
"I'm not doing it entirely for the money," Omondi said. "I don't want to be a rich woman and then be sad, because I'll feel like I haven't done what really matters to me. As much as I want to be a surgeon, that's a huge part of my goal, I also want to be a family woman. We'll decide that when we get there."
Columbia College received an opening round bye in the NAIA national volleyball championships. The tournament begins Dec. 2 in Sioux City, Iowa. Final site pool assignments and schedule will be determined Sunday.