Before she graduated from high school, Ghita Harris worked as a medical research assistant in the ECU School of Medicine, an opportunity that would have seemed to have put her on the fast track to becoming a physician. But more than two decades later, her journey has just begun.

The Greenville native was among 86 students to be welcomed to ECU’s Brody School of Medicine on Friday. The Class of 2023 is made up of 44 women and 42 men, ranging in age from 20 to 44.

“It’s like living a dream,” Harris said in an interview following the annual White Coat ceremony. “I was accepted at East Carolina where it all began, so my life just came full circle.”

Some of her classmates, like 22-year-old Conor Pumphrey, charted a more direct course to get here. Pumphrey, a J.H. Rose High School graduate, was an Early Assurance program scholar, so he had known since entering East Carolina University as a freshman that he would had a reserved seat when it came time for medical school.

Harris, an earlier Rose graduate, had no such assurance. She had some of the makings of a strong candidate, having spent two summers working in the lab with neonatologist Dr. Alex Robertson through funding from a minority research grant. But when she applied to medical school after graduation from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Harris was not accepted.

“I just kind of let it go,” she said. “I never thought this would happen, really.”

After graduation, she put her chemistry degree to work. But while she was working at DSM Pharmaceuticals, Harris was called for jury duty, and another calling began to emerge. Serving for one year on a grand jury made her question whether or not she should consider law school instead.

In 2004, she enrolled in law school at North Carolina Central University in Durham. Four years later, she was back in Greenville, where she was in practice as a criminal defense attorney for the next eight years.

While she enjoyed her work, there were times when Harris wondered whether or not she had traveled the wrong road. When her mother became ill in 2010, Harris began to do some soul searching. Those questions continued when Fannie Harris underwent a kidney transplant in 2014 and suffered life-threatening complications the following year.

“Just through a bunch of variables intertwining, I began questioning if I wanted to practice law for the rest of my life,” Harris said. “One day I just woke up, literally, and I was like, ‘Man, I was supposed to become a doctor. That was my original plan.’ So I started looking into it and questioned if I was too old to still try to do it.”

By this time, she learned, all of her prerequisite courses were too old to be accepted. To even apply to medical school, she would have to repeat about 30 hours of college coursework in sciences, including organic chemistry and physics.

But in 2016, Harris decided to do just that. She closed her Greenville law office and moved 400 miles north to Philadelphia to attend Drexel University. It would take nearly two years for her to complete a premed certificate program.

In 2018, she was interviewed for the medical school seat that had been so elusive years earlier, and, this time, it was hers.

“It’s surreal,” Harris said. “You just wonder why things don’t happen at a certain time in life.”

When her mother died in June at age 72, Harris considered whether or not to defer her acceptance for a year.

But she decided not to put it off any longer, confident that her mother would have wanted her to move forward.

“I’m just going to try to make her proud,” Harris said. “I just want to honor my mom.”

Though it has taken her years to arrive at this point, Harris appreciates the path that took her through law school on her way to a career in medicine.

“I don’t regret it at all,” she said. “It’s just amazing to me how it came back to me.

“I’m just thrilled to be fulfilling my dream,” Harris said. “It’s totally full circle to have been here in high school and to be back here. I just think it was meant (to be).”

Contact Kim Grizzard at kgrizzard@reflector.com or call 329-9578.