It has been three years since we first met, you as a third year college student from the Georgetown Scholarship Program, me as an obstetrician who came to tell you and your friends in the program about my journey as a young, poor immigrant trying to reach for the stars and achieving my dream of becoming a physician. I urged all of you not to give up your dreams, that it was possible if you kept going at it. I told you all that it would be a tough road, as you are first generation college students, but I shared that it is not an impossible path to become physicians. You became the first student in the group to shadow me in my office. It has been almost two years since I wrote a blog about your graduation from Georgetown University, called “Letter to Johanny: All the Places You Will Go.” I revealed to the readers a little about your life, but not all the details I knew and wrote about in my letter of recommendation for you to the medical schools to which you applied. Well, my young friend Johanny, you have proven to me and yourself how you can go anywhere now. Obviously, like me, all the medical school admission officers must have marveled at the details about your life and wondered how you have had such grit, resiliency, grace and success.
I was ecstatic to learn you picked Harvard Medical School, from all the fabulous medical schools into which you got accepted. You are going to Harvard medical school this fall! How did that happen? You never had thought you could even apply to such schools, and you ended up getting into every “elite” medical school to which you applied. I can reassure the modest you, that none of those officers admitted you to their school out of pity for your background. They gave you a seat in their prestigious school because they recognized the gem in you. As I wrote in your letter of recommendation, it would be an honor someday for any of these schools to call you its alumni. You have earned your place in the sun.
Now, the sky will be wide open for you to fly like a curious bird. Years from now, I hope you will remember your journey and pay forward. Be the “tailwind” for students in need, like you and me at the beginning of our tough journey to the stars. Keep the articles “How to Level the College Playing Field” of Harold Levy with Peg Tyre, or “The Growing College Graduation Gap” of David Leonhard somewhere close by, to remind you how we all should help lift these disadvantaged students to reach the stars like us. Someday, like me, you will be tired of listening to your elite colleagues complain how their elite children’s seats in elite colleges or professional schools were “stolen” by some poor students who had test scores that were lower, GPAs lower and so forth, yet “got in because the ‘progressives’ unfairly gave the seats to them just because they were poor.”
You, like me, will be tired of reminding these frustrating parents how their children did not go to school hungry, how they did not have to work after school to pay for their tuition or to help support their families, or how they could not afford to take SAT or Professional School Prep courses or private tutoring, to get their test scores higher. To compare the race between a poor student and a supremely advantaged, elite student is like watching an anorexic rabbit racing against a well-fed rabbit on steroids at the starting line. They should not be at the same starting line! Stay silent, however, and let these angry parents rant, while you continue to mentor those in need of your wisdom. It takes a lot of inner reflection to understand affirmative action; and many of us who forget our “tailwinds” in life, tend to think we did it all by ourselves.
Ironically, many people, who will meet you at Harvard medical school or later, might assume you got accepted because of your background or affirmative action. They would not know, given your nature of modesty, that you had superior academic achievement with double majors in college, aced your Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), worked two jobs and helped put your mother through nursing school while you were in college yourself. You did not need any help from affirmative action. You needed a mentor who believed in and encouraged you, to give you a jump start to your dream.
Harold Levy, executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, the largest scholarship foundation in the United States., is dying of ALS, and he feels he needs to fight even more vigorously for the high-performance, low-income students. Do not waste time, Johanny, to fight for what you believe in. Fight for those whose voices are unheard in society whenever you can. Change a life, and you will change generations to come of that life.
You told me you plan to choose Obstetrics-Gynecology as your career. I know you will be among the most compassionate and dedicated physicians, no matter what specialty you enter. As an obstetrician, however, you will have the privilege to witness the spectacular and mysterious beginning of life, as I have several thousand times by now. It’s a humble experience to see how life starts and to recognize how “equal” we are at the beginning, all naked, all innocent, all crying in the new world in front of us, one with so many lights, colors and sounds. That equality, you will recognize, might disappear very quickly, depending on which environment a baby is born into. The world is not always kind and equal to every baby, once she is no longer in that peaceful sea of her mother’s womb. I hope you will say a prayer for each baby you deliver, and wish her a peaceful and happy journey. Like me, you can only hope that those she will meet along the way will help bring her the innocent joy and equality she experienced as she emerged from her mother into the world.
Another big “Bon Voyage “Johanny, to all the wonderful places you will go!
Never, Never, Never Give Up