Dr. Cynthia Kudji Sylvester vividly remembers the day 31 years ago when she knew she was going to become a doctor.
It was 1989 and she was visiting Ghana — the West African country her family left when she was just 2 — when a female stranger who needed urgent help approached the then-19-year-old.
“She was talking about her daughter who was sick and had a fever,” Cynthia, now 49, tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “She picked us just because we were American. There was such a drastic divide between us, and that really hit home. It was in that moment that I knew I wanted to be a physician.”
What Cynthia never could have known was how long that journey would take — and the surprising person who would join her.
Just a year after that memorable trip to Ghana, Cynthia became pregnant with her daughter Jasmine during her senior year at Tulane University, and had to put her dreams on hold.
“Medical school at that time was out of the question,” says Cynthia.
She instead became a nursing assistant and eventually worked her way up to nurse practitioner over the next 10 years.
With help from her family, Cynthia, who raised Jasmine as a single mom, had finally saved up enough money to go to medical school in 2013.
“I knew it was time,” says Cynthia, who went on to marry Mark Sylvester, a 50-year-old military IT assistant, last June. “Even though it was a long uphill journey, it shaped me. Every disappointment, every accomplishment made me want to push further and create a better life for my daughter.”
It was then that Jasmine, who was a junior at Louisiana State University, had already decided to follow in her mother’s footsteps — even though she admits she struggled with math and science.
“My mom always inspired me to be everything that I wanted to be,” says Jasmine, now 26. “I watched her overcome things firsthand. We’ve come a long way.”
Jasmine, who attended Louisiana State University School of Medicine, and Cynthia, who graduated from the University of Medicine and Health Sciences on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, began their residences together on July 1 through the LSU Health System.
And while Jasmine is at LSU Health in New Orleans pursuing general surgery, and Cynthia is in Lafayette focusing on family medicine, the two are as close as can be despite the nearly 200 miles apart.
“Jasmine has always been my rock,” says Cynthia. “We’re in this together.”
Adds Jasmine: “My mom always inspired me to be everything that I wanted to be. I watched her overcome things firsthand. We’ve come a long way.”