April 11, 2013

Ray Rajagukguk's pilgrimage from life in a hallway to becoming a pharmacy student at Loma Linda University

A day at the beach affords Loma Linda University School of Pharmacy student Ray Rajagukguk and girlfriend Angela Palmer a chance to relax and spend time together. Ray grew up in a rented hallway behind a restaurant in Jakarta, Indonesia. Today he is preparing for a career as a pharmacist. Ray loves to share his encouraging story with high school students.

For second-year LLU School of Pharmacy student Ray Rajagukguk, the line between poverty and success is the difference between renting a hallway and living in a very nice home.

For the first few years of his life, Ray and his family were so poor they couldn’t afford a room, so they rented a hallway behind a Jakarta, Indonesia, restaurant. They had the place to themselves at night, but shared the space with restaurant staff during the day.

“Frankly, I don’t remember that part of my life,” Ray shares, “but my parents told me about it. We lived there two or three years.”

Although his parents had just finished college, his father had a hard time finding a suitable job. His mother stayed home with Ray and his older brother, Sany.

After his father found work as an auditor, the family saved enough money to move into a house.

"My first memory was triggered by looking at photos of that house,” Ray says. “I remember the enjoyment of having tiles on the floor. In a hot country like Indonesia, tiles feel cool on your feet.”

When he was 10 or 11, the family moved again—this time to a house his father designed.

“I remember the difference in structure, design, and size,” he says. “My parents still live there. It’s a lot bigger and nicer.”

When Sany was 15 and Ray was 14, their father sent them to America.

“He wanted us to get an education and make it in life,” Ray shares. “At first, we lived with my aunt and her family in Redlands. Eventually we lived on our own. My mom would go back and forth between Indonesia and here, checking on us.”

Ray discovered he was at a big disadvantage when he arrived at Redlands High School.

“I didn’t know English,” he shares. “My counselor put me in French class, so I was having to learn two new languages at once, carrying two dictionaries.”

Due to his small size and limited English, Ray found himself the target of bullies.

“I realized I had to take care of myself,” he says.

Ray vividly remembers the triggering event.

“I was cornered by this bully in the locker room and he was slapping my face,” he recalls. “A classmate yelled at the bully and told him to leave me alone. The guy who was yelling was smaller than me, but strong. He was good at the P.E. exercises. That’s when I realized that the appearance of strength was important.”

Before coming to America, Ray had never applied himself academically. “I was always in the bottom three students in my class,” he discloses.

He paid close attention, however, when his dad explained that although he would send money to help the boys out, he wouldn’t be there in person.

“If we wanted to get ahead,” Ray notes, “we would have to apply ourselves to the challenge.”

Ray got the message. When his counselor put him in an English-as-a-second-language class, Ray opted to take the regular tenth-grade English course instead. By the time he graduated, the fact that he had taken several advanced placement classes elevated his GPA to 4.15—better than a straight “A” average.

The high grades served Ray well the very next year when an unexpected crisis arose at the end of his first year at Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas.

“I was in America on a tourist visa, which—if you overstay—you become an undocumented illegal,” he says. “The school got a letter from the Immigration and Naturalization Service saying I was going to be deported. My student advisor wrote a letter to the U.S. embassy in Indonesia, but I had to leave.”

Ray flew home without any assurance he would be allowed to return to the United States to finish his studies. When he landed in Indonesia, he and his dad went to the American embassy right away.

“It was disappointing at first,” he shares. “On the last interview, I practically begged the immigration officer to give me a second chance. I told the officer I was a good student and showed him my transcripts. When he saw my high school GPA, he approved my visa the same day. I was thankful to God that I had done my best!”

Ten years later, Ray completed a PhD degree in biochemistry at the University of Arkansas and moved to Pacific Union College to teach organic chemistry.

“I spent five years there,” he says. “During that time, I started wondering what if I had pursued medicine instead of biochemistry? But there’s not much chemistry in medicine; it’s mostly biology. That’s when I learned that pharmacy is a good marriage between chemistry and the health professions.”

Three or four years ago, while visiting friends in Georgia, he met Angela Palmer, a high school Spanish teacher, at a church social event. Ray asked her out and was delighted when she accepted. Their friendship has been growing ever since.

“She brings a lot of balance to me,” he shares. “She finished her bachelor of arts in English at Southern Adventist University in 2007. She’ll be resigning her teaching position and moving here next year.”

In 2010, he entered the doctor of pharmacy program at LLU. In addition to his studies, he loves sharing his personal story with high school students contemplating a career in the health sciences.

“The toughest part of the PharmD program is time management,” he tells them. “Not only are you expected to do well in your classes, you are also expected to serve the community. You have to manage your time very well.”

He ends his discourse to the students on an inspiring note.  

“You can do it!” he insists. “I know you can. If I can make it, you can, too.”