Class of 2021: 16-year-old graduates from Dobyns-Bennett, headed for medical school

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KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) — His accomplishments on paper make him seem a bit like a child prodigy, but Johnathan Lai’s goals go beyond that. He wants to ultimately give back to his community by becoming a doctor.

The Dobyns-Bennett alumnus can say something many students cannot.

“I graduated at 16 years old,” said Lai with a smile.

The young graduate is already headed for even bigger things.

“Ever since I was young I always knew I wanted to become a doctor. The opportunity didn’t really come until this year when I was introduced to these undergraduate, medical school combined programs,” said Lai.

He will start college this fall at Middle Tennessee State University with pre-acceptance into the university’s Meharry Medical College through a special early acceptance program.

“I am guaranteed a spot in medical school but the conditions are that I get a 505 on the MCAT and that I get a 3.5 GPA while I’m there,” said Lai.

His specific program highlights the need for more rural physicians and funnels doctors into residency programs in rural parts of Tennessee to encourage doctor retention at smaller hospitals.

“I’d like to come back and work in this region,” said Lai. “I really want to help these people because I feel like they deserve a lot better.”

Lai said his passion for healthcare grew when he was a child as he saw his grandparents fall ill; one with Parkinson’s and the other with Alzheimer’s.

“I feel like a strong want to go into health care stemmed from seeing them develop these neurodegenerative diseases,” said Lai.

Johnathan’s parents are extremely proud of their son’s accomplishments. They first knew he was special when he skipped first grade and took on a special interest in winning the school’s spelling bee. Johnathan also studied abroad in Taiwan in 6th and 7th grade, and his parents said he never once fell behind when returning to the states.

“He is definitely talented, very smart, but I like to think he is also a super hard worker and that got him to the stage he is at today,” said Benson Lai, Johnathan’s father.

On his mother’s side, there are already 23 doctors in the family.

“My relatives are excited, they said, we got another one!” said Johnathan’s mom, Mayling Hu. “He will be number 24.”

If the academic accomplishments weren’t enough, Lai is also an accomplished swimmer. Among a host of regional titles, he broke Dobyns-Bennett’s school record for the 100 butterfly which was set 17 years ago.

“Before every race I shout ‘let’s go’ and ‘yes sir’ to hype the team up and get the ball rolling for everyone,” said Lai.

As a natural leader and a strong student Johnathan credits his teachers, coaches and school for where he is today.

“Without Dobyns-Bennett I would not be where I am. I would not have chosen any other school over Dobyns-Bennett,” said Lai. “I feel that even though I’m 16, I am going into college with maturity much higher.”

According to MTSU’s website, “The purpose of the program is to increase the number of primary care physicians serving medically underserved populations as well as alleviating health care disparities in rural Tennessee. It is a seven-year early medical acceptance program restricted to incoming freshmen that begins with acceptance into the program as an undergraduate at MTSU and concludes with graduation from Meharry Medical College.”

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