Classmates of “Sisi” Okereke probably did not realize they had a future doctor of psychiatry in their midst when they graduated from Park School in 1987. In hindsight, however, there was some foreshadowing.
Okereke’s senior project was conducted at Buffalo General Hospital, where she served as a volunteer on the Medical Teaching Unit. That sparked an interest in medicine, she recalls. Okereke went to college at Harvard, where she majored in psychology. Her interests in psychology and medicine led her to consider psychiatry, she said, and a career was born.
Dr. Nnenna Kalaya Okereke today is an attending psychiatrist at the Zucker Hillside Hospital of the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System in Glen Oaks, NY. She also holds faculty appointments as assistant professor of psychiatry at the Hofstra North Shore-Long Island Jewish School of Medicine and adjunct assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
Dr. Okereke’s patients range in age from 4 to 18. “These parents bring their children into the office, and are entrusting you with the care of their children, which is kind of a big responsibility,” she said. “But at the same time, when someone is doing better ... and you can kind of help facilitate making that difference I think that’s part of what makes it rewarding. And there’s also the fact that the kids are really fun. Younger kids are very playful. There are always toys and things in my office. The older ones, they are making transitions themselves. It takes me back to the times when I was at Park. So you help them through those transitions.”
Okereke made a career transition of her own after graduating from Harvard. She was accepted at UB Medical School, but opted to defer admission for a year. Soon after she was offered a position in a UB program called the School-College- University Partnership in which she was sent to teach for a year in two inner-city Buffalo schools.
“They wanted to get recent college graduates to help the students reach their best potential and they wanted to identify the pool of students who they thought had a lot of potential to do well academically but for various reasons were not perhaps living up to their potential. And so they wanted us to kind of do some enrichment programs to help them out.”
Then it was on to medical school at UB. Okereke did a residency in general psychiatry at the University of Virginia, then headed to New York Presbyterian Hospital to do a fellowship in child and adolescent psychiatry.
Okereke started at Park in pre-Kindergarten and stayed on through the end of Upper School. “One of the biggest influences from a young age was June Watt. She was one of the nursery school teachers and even though I was very young I have great memories of her.
“In high school there were so many great teachers. Some that stood out were the late Dr. Raoul Hailpern, he was a mathematics teacher; Stephen Dombrowski, a history teacher; Sharon Lohmann was an English teacher.”
Okereke also has a brother and two sisters who graduated from Park. She and her siblings took full advantage of all that the school had to offer.
“Park is, as you know, an environment that is very welcoming and encourages you to try different things, so I tried to do as many things as I could. I think my main focus by the time I got to high school was the literary publication, Miled Road.” She also served in student government and played volleyball and basketball.
Okereke feels the education she got in her formative years at Park was quite important to her. “The thing about Park that I found the most helpful, the most nurturing, was you were exposed to everything you needed to be exposed to, and you could kind of learn at your own pace.
“You are given so much support from your teachers and your fellow students. It was a very self-driven kind of learning experience, which for me was very helpful. Of course the size of it, the smaller classes, and having more interaction with your teacher and more personal attention was also very helpful.”