FARGO -- When Jack Lubka set his sights on a career in medicine seven years ago, he aimed farther, and for a vastly different setting, than many of his peers.
Born and raised in the sometimes frozen tundra of Fargo, Lubka took on tropical heat when he enrolled in medical school in Havana, Cuba, in 2010.
Seven years later, he’s earned his degree and is back home, applying for a residency.
Lubka, 34, is the first North Dakotan to get a medical degree from the Communist Caribbean island nation.
His class of 600 included Africans, Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders. Only 30 students were from the United States.
“It was kind of difficult not to stick out there,” Lubka said.
He learned about the opportunity in Cuba from his late father, Lewis Lubka, a retired professor, World War II veteran and longtime human rights activist.
The Latin American School of Medicine, or ELAM, offers full scholarships to people from low-income areas of Africa, Asia and the Americas, including the U.S.
Lubka couldn’t pass on the prospect of a free education.
“I didn’t want to have to borrow a half million dollars to go to medical school,” he said.
In exchange, ELAM graduates pledge to practice medicine in poor or underserved communities, something Lubka fully intends to do.
The biggest challenge of medical school in Cuba is that all courses are taught in Spanish.
Lubka took español at Fargo South High School and North Dakota State University, but wasn’t fluent.
For the first year in Havana, he focused on building that fluency.
Even though the medical school instruction and exams were in Spanish, Lubka found himself studying almost exclusively in English.
“Then when quizzed or asked questions in class, I would kind of translate on the spot,” he said.
As part of his full scholarship, Lubka received free housing, clothing and food.
Living quarters were meager and crowded, but not uncomfortable. Lubka and his fellow students were able to grow their own vegetables and herbs to liven up some of their meals.
Occasionally, they had free time to explore Cuba’s capital city of Havana, famous for its Spanish colonial architecture and old-time American cars -- a product of the U.S. trade embargo in effect since 1960.
Lubka wants to see normalized relations with Cuba, and open trade and travel.
“Cuba is a friendly place. It’s a fun place to go visit,” he said.
‘A great education’
Among the positives of receiving a medical degree in Cuba, Lubka counts learning Spanish and the four years of clinical rotations accomplished instead of the typical two years.
He said he also received more hands-on work there, assisting in surgeries, for example, than he might have at a medical school in the U.S.
Though medical technology in Cuba is certainly lagging compared with what’s offered here, Lubka feels he received a great education, and his U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) results bear that out.
“I passed my boards all on the first try,” Lubka said, adding that his scores are on par with those of students at the University of North Dakota Medical School in Grand Forks.
Passing that U.S. exam was one way to prove the veracity of his medical degree. Lubka also had to register with a foreign medical graduate commission, which verified his diploma and transcripts.
Together, those conditions make him eligible for residency training in the U.S.
He wants to work in surgery and orthopedics, but said those fields are highly competitive.
Lubka would like to find work close to home, but said his dad would be proud, no matter what.
“My goal is to serve North Dakota. We’ll see what happens,” Lubka said.