Jordan: There are a few reasons that we make this show every day. First is to keep you informed about whatever the most important story of the day might be, and hopefully help you understand it better, and more deeply. The second is just to talk to smart, fascinating people in the hopes that we, and you might learn something from them.
And the third reason, is to find a way inside worlds that we’ll never experience, and some of us struggle to understand. And although today’s podcast is just the story of one young woman who is graduating from university, her story checks all of those boxes. This year has so far been awful. You don’t need me to tell you that. It seems to get bleaker and more dangerous by the day. But there are years beyond this one, and although it seems horribly unfair to put even more onto young people right now, it’s people like our guests today, that make me feel that things can change. That’s not a platitude, today’s guest makes me feel that way because she’s done it. She’s affected more change in her time at school than lots of us ever have. Because of that change the next person changing those things, won’t be doing it alone. That’s an attitude that we could all take on right now.
So listen today and learn and take heart.
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Chika Stacy Oriuwa is graduating from the University of Toronto Medical School. She’s black. She’s the only black student in her graduating class of 259. She’s also the valedictorian. She was the first black woman to hold that honour in the history of the school.
That is quite an intro Chika.
Chika: Thank you. Yeah, it has been an incredibly surreal journey and an incredibly surreal end to my medical school experience.
Jordan: And today is your graduation. So, first of all, I mean, congratulations from us on a phenomenal achievement, but how are you feeling? We’re talking to you the morning of your graduation.
Chika: I am, you know, I would say I am a confluence of emotions right now. I’m excited to finally become a doctor. I am nervous to have my valedictory address aired and to see the reception from my class, from the community, from the faculty, from my mentors, staff, peers, their families. And so there’s a lot of nerves, I guess, because there’s so much pressure, I would say.
And then I also have a sense of fear in a way, because I’ve learned as we have all learned, that the world continues to be a very difficult place for black people to exist. And this is something that I’ve always been incredibly passionate and vocal about advocating about anti-blackness, systemic anti-blackness and racism, and trying earnestly to address, but particularly in the past three or four days since everything has kind of been happening in the civil unrest, I would say that it’s become an even more poignant moment, as there has been a surge of media presence, my story taking a stronger media presence and recognizing that there are a lot of people out there who are directing a wild amount of hate and racism and bigotry towards me online and calling into question whether or not I actually deserve to be valedictorian, calling into question my competency as a physician.
And so it’s a very bittersweet experience, I would say.
Jordan: I can’t believe that… I mean, I guess that’s not true, I can believe that that is happening online and I’m sorry.
Chika: Thank you.
Jordan: Let’s talk about your day, and we will talk about the other stuff, but how long have you been thinking about this day, the day you became a doctor? It must have taken an incredible amount of work.
Chika: Oh gosh. Well, I mean, yes, it has taken an incredible amount of work and you know, I’ve told myself since, as soon as I could talk, I would say, as soon as I was able to formulate independent thought as a child, I’ve wanted to be a doctor. So that’s almost my entire life.
And so how long have I been looking forward to this day? You know, several, several years and especially in the last four years, especially in the darkest and hardest moments of going through medical school, you just kind of tell yourself that this is the end game. This is the end goal and that becoming a physician is all I’ve ever wanted to be.
And so ultimately, this is a day I’ve been looking forward to forever and it feels so surreal and it is just such an incredible, incredible feeling.
Jordan: Well tell me about your time at U of T medical school, because you know, the reason that your story has such resonance with people is because you’re the only black student in your class.
And I think a lot of people are shocked that that is still the case. So tell me about, you know, how did it begin?
Chika: I’d say that my story, with respect to the gravity of being the only black student in my class is truly underscored by the experiences that led up to the beginning of that narrative. So before I came to medical school at the university of Toronto, I was an undergraduate student at McMaster university where I studied the bachelor of health sciences honours program.
And in that undergraduate space, I was also the only black student. And looking forward to medical school, I was very much eager to be able to shift that narrative and kind of shake loose that identity. I was very much eager to join a medical school that was at the centre of diversity.
Toronto is the most culturally rich city in our country. And then at the biggest medical school that also had a black medical students association, I was very much eager to be able to join this medical school. And so when I ultimately came to the University of Toronto and then learned very quickly that there were no other black medical students in my year, it was incredibly difficult. And I think what made it difficult is that it wasn’t the fact that there were no black others. There were no other black students in any of the other years. I was actually flanked by more black students in the year before and after me. But it’s the fact that on the day to day, when you’re going through things, going through conversations, discussions, clinical encounters, when you have less individuals who are present, who can inherently identify with some of the adversities that you’re facing, it becomes very, very difficult in that.
That was reiterated for me throughout the course of my medical education, where I encountered micro and macro aggressions and discrimination coming about in various forms, either interpersonally or seeing how it manifested in a lack of diversity in the medical curriculum. And so I would say that that definitely underscored my medical school experience and I was fortunate to be able to go to the University of Toronto where there was already a cultural shift that was on the horizon and they were making strides to really address that issue. And fortunately, I was in the position to be able to contribute to that. And so that really led to what I believe has been an incredible and surreal undergraduate experience of advocacy.
Jordan: In your mind and even drawing in people that you’ve talked to in the course of your advocacy, how does it happen that you’re the only black student in a class of 259? How did we end up with that in the first place?
Chika: So that is such an important question. It is a multifactorial answer, I would say, that is still currently being elucidated.
Of course, there are so many things that really play into it. So one of the issues of course, is the lack of social capital and inherited networks that are provided to the black community. So because there has been historically, an underrepresentation of black individuals in medicine, there isn’t necessarily this social knowledge that can be passed down within generations that will explain to someone early on, I’m talking before undergraduate, before university, about what it takes to get into medicine. And so much of getting into medical school is kind of like a hidden curriculum. And what I mean by that is that there’s a lot of knowledge that isn’t exactly explicitly stated anywhere. It’s more nuanced. It’s more, this is how you are supposed to kind of do things in a certain way from even as early back as, you know, grade eight, grade nine and having that lack of social capital and networks and mentorship is really what creates that gap. So that’s one of the things, and then another issue also relates back to the systemic anti-blackness that’s embedded within our society.
And I’m talking about all facets. So if you look at the education system and you look as early back as kindergarten, you’re seeing a discrepancy in how black children at the age of five and six are being treated by their teachers, being more harshly reprimanded for any issues that might arise in the classroom being more quickly labeled as having behavioural or learning issues as opposed to their non-black counterparts.
And then, as we know, and I’m talking about in Canada as well, in Ontario in our schools, we’re seeing that there is this difference in trajectory for black students from as early as grade five, grade six, grade seven, grade eight, where they’re starting to prepare for high school and you can either put them into the academic stream, the applied stream, the essential stream.
And we’re constantly seeing black students who are put into educational streams that are below their capability. And once you change someone’s trajectory so early on in their educational path, if you’re in applied courses, then you actually can’t apply to university. You have to be in academic streams, unless you go back and get more credits that are in an academic way.
And then if you can’t apply to university, you can’t become a doctor. You can’t pursue professional schools. Unless, once again, you go back and you get the necessary credits. And so this plays into a larger systemic issue. Also tying back to the current civil affairs where we’re seeing the unrest because of police brutality and anti-black violence.
And when you have policing in communities of colour, then you start to see that social disintegration, you start to see that distrust, and there’s almost the psychological damage that is done by constantly policing black bodies. And so this is something that would kind of be for me, almost a thesis, there’s so much to unpack. But what I guess I’m ultimately trying to say is that the work that is being done at the institutional level by the University of Toronto, is an incredible step in order to address the chronically low number of black students.
But once again, these are issues that cannot solely be placed on the University of Toronto, or not solely placed on higher levels of academia, because this is a societal issue. And so the accountability, the responsibility, needs to be shared by society in order to deconstruct the fabrics of anti-blackness that are currently holding these discrepancies in place.
Jordan: I feel like every conversation that we have around racism today comes back to just the complete systemic nature of it. And it’s almost impossible to imagine that one person can make a difference in that except you’ve been doing that. And I want to ask you about that in one second, but first as somebody who went to university and went to it full of privilege and didn’t see anything outside of my own world. Tell me about what it was, like you mentioned microaggressions and macroaggressions. Tell me what your university experience was like so I can understand how it was different from mine.
Chika: What’s interesting is that when I was in my undergraduate years, it was certainly something that I was very much aware of.
I wouldn’t say I was as vocal about it until almost the chronicity of that narrative started to grow on me. And it wasn’t until my later years that I was like, ‘okay, this is truly something that I don’t think is sustainable for the institution or for the black community’. And so some of the experiences that I face in my undergraduate studies, one of them that I’ve said is a defining moment for me, was when a few friends of mine and I, we were going across the border just for a shopping trip in Buffalo. And I was the only black person who was in the car. And we were all from the same program. And as we were ready to go across the border, the border patrol officer asked us the same broader questions that they kind of asked everybody, you know, who are you? What are you doing? Where are you going? And then he asked us, ‘how do you guys know each other?’ And we said, ‘we’re all in the health sciences program at McMaster’. And he said, ‘okay, and what is it that you guys are trying to do?’ We all unanimously said, we all wanted to be doctors because that’s what we wanted to be at the time.
And then he leans in through the window. Cause I was in the passenger seat at the front and he says, ‘even you?’ and then there was this exchange of yes. And then he was like, ‘really?’ And then it was clear that he kept pushing me as if he was trying to catch me in a lie, which as you can imagine is incredibly uncomfortable being the only black person in that space and having to encounter an authority figure, especially at the border where I have absolutely no reason to lie about that. And it was incredibly painful to know that at that time I might’ve been like maybe 19 or 20 or so, to have a dream that I’d had for 17 years and to have someone who knew me for 17 seconds say you don’t look like someone who would even be in the medical profession, so they just could not believe it.
And so that was incredibly marking for me. And that was before I even got into medical school, and then having to face different iterations and permutations of that doubt throughout medical school. Whether it was encountering people who said that I didn’t get into medical school in a fair way. I didn’t earn my spot. And then people who have told me that if I raised certain concerns about the medical curriculum or something of that nature, having it brushed off initially. Thankfully the University of Toronto now is incredibly adamant. They now have a black health theme lead, and they now are incredibly passionate about having a more equitable curriculum, but certainly that those experiences also recurred when I started my clinical rotations, in fact, they ramped up exponentially. And now I had to encounter racist experiences with patients and with preceptors who might’ve only worked with me for one shift.
And so there really is not necessarily all that much accountability there, especially if they might not see me again or work with me again. And so I definitely encountered experiences that were incredibly painful. So for example, I’ve had patients when I was working in the ER, I’ve had patients grabbed my shirt and tell me ‘why haven’t you cleaned the vomit off the floor yet?’
You know, I was wearing a stethoscope, and I was wearing scrubs and yet they just automatically assumed that I couldn’t be a physician working in that space. So it’s been very interesting, very interesting time.
Jordan: So this is a dumb question, but the only way that changes, is if we have more black students, more black doctors coming through places like U of T?
Chika: Yeah. Yeah. And honestly, I think that U of T is a role model for every other medical school out there, because this is not a U of T issue. And this is also not a faculty of medicine issue. This is an issue that’s pervasive across all institutions in most professional school settings. And so this is something that needs to be addressed more adequately on a broader scale, but certainly the University of Toronto is doing incredible work by creating spaces where black students can thrive and exist and only be focused about becoming a doctor. I felt that so much of my experience was underscored by this acute awareness of my identity. And not only did I have to be concerned about being a good medical student and also concurrently working on my Master’s in systems leadership and innovation.
But also at the same time, I had to be incredibly aware of how I was perceived as a black woman, how I presented myself as a black woman, how it is that I spoke, how it is that I interacted with people. But in a much more heightened way than would be expected or warranted of any medical student.
And so my hope is that one day there will be black medical students coming through institutions that will feel safe. And that they can freely be blocked without reservation, that there are no expectations placed on them to stifle any aspect of their identity or to live in fear in any capacity.
And I do believe that the university of Toronto is taking incredible strides to make that dream a reality.
Jordan: Well and you’ve been a part of the work to change that. So can you tell me about some of that. Maybe start with the black student application program and then anything else that they’re doing?
Chika: Sure. So the black student application program is an initiative that was the child of thought from black faculty members who showed incredible leadership in conjunction with the black community and with allies at the faculty of medicine at the university of Toronto, in order to address the chronically low number of black students.
So on average, there was between zero to two to five black students, in every year that was admitted. And this is a long standing issue. And so there were efforts that were made to introduce this initiative. And I would say that it was a serendipitous alignment of my admission to the University of Toronto in that year, and being the only black medical student, and that being the same year that they were implementing and rolling out the black student application program.
And so to be able to synthesize my narrative with the implementation of that and to become the public ambassador of that program really helped to, I believe in some ways, increase the potency of it and increase the outreach. So really being truthful and authentic in my narrative, despite warnings from people that institutions do not like students who challenge the status quo, that it can in some way hinder my chances out of residency or block future career opportunities if I spoke up and told people about what I was experiencing. But ultimately realizing that for me, advocacy was a form of self preservation, and ever since being a part of that implementation and rollout of the black student application program, I’ve been involved in so many further advocacy opportunities, and chances at public education from keynotes to seminars and panelist discussions and doing as much as I can to organize within the community, educate the community, and advocate for equity, inclusion, and diversity across all professional spaces.
Jordan: Where does all that energy for advocacy come from at the same time as you’re graduating at the top of your class in med school?
Chika: Well I would say that the energy definitely comes from almost an exhaustion of the way that things currently are, and wanting so badly to shift the scope of the narrative.
And I would say that my valedictory title is actually reflective of what my peers think and believe, because they are the ones who nominated and elected me to have this title. And so being a valedictorian at this time, gives me so much strength because I know, and I have faith that my class, which is incredibly diverse by other metrics other than underrepresented minorities, but is incredibly diverse in thought, in critical examination. And their ability to respect and see value in the work that I’m doing, and have done for the last four years, also gives me the strength to move forward, because I know that there are allies inherent in this space, that there are advocates in this space and that I’m not doing this work alone. And so I really do get so much strength from my peers, from my mentors, Dr. Onye Nnorum, Dr. Lisa Robinson, Dr. Pier Bryden, who have shouldered me, who’ve taken me under their wings, ever since I stepped foot at U of T. And so I think part of it is intrinsic and my own conviction to want to facilitate change. But on the other hand, I’ve been so blessed by this incredibly protective community that is at U of T.
Jordan: So you’re giving your valedictory speech today. This podcast will not air until Wednesday morning, so you can spoil it for us a little bit if you want, what are you going to say to your peers?
Chika: So the main message that I’m trying to get across to my class is the idea of having a strong sense of how it is that you’ll define yourself.
So a fun fact about me writing the speech. I was struck with inspiration in the middle of watching Michelle Obama’s Netflix documentary, and Michelle Obama talks adamantly about being able to define yourself before others inaccurately define you. And I just resonated with that so deeply, especially since my story and my narrative has been marked by iterations of people inaccurately defining me and having to consistently redefine myself in the face of racism and bigotry.
And so what I’m trying to impart on my class is the importance of taking ownership and taking stronghold in your narrative, and having a clear understanding of how it is that you define yourself and what your convictions are. What is it that you will and will not tolerate? What is it that you will and will not stand for?
And allowing that to guide you through all adversity through the next difficult leg of our residency and well into our career, our professional and personal lives. And so that’s really what I am trying to inculcate in my class. And any listeners who happen to tune into my valedictory address.
Jordan: What comes after this for you? What are you going to do next? What kind of medicine do you want to practice? Where does your career go?
Chika: So as of July 1st, I will be starting my residency in psychiatry at the University of Toronto. And that’ll be a five-year residency program. And after residency, I hope to subspecialize in neuro psychiatry, which is really the intersection of neurology and psychiatry, as I have quite a piqued interest in that area.
And I also hope to continue to do my advocacy with regards to public speaking, community engagement, community organization, mobilizing efforts to address inadequacies. And so that’s really how I hope my personal, professional, and community work continues to evolve.
Jordan: Do you think five years from now, when you look at the progress that’s been made by you, but also by U of T during the time that you’ve been there, do you think the class looks different? Is it moving in the right direction?
Chika: Absolutely. I mean, the classes now being admitted to the medical school already look vastly different. So the class of 2024 that just gained admission in the last month or so, they will have 24 black medical students, which is the largest group in Canadian history from our understanding.
And so that is a paradigm shift. And I think what’s important to understand is that this not only impacts the black community, but it also impacts our community at large. It improves medicine because it introduces new dialogue, new perspective, into the medical school classrooms, which really helped to support all communities in general.
It helps us to have a more critical and inclusive lens when we’re approaching issues within medicine. And so to be able to shift the culture in a positive direction is everything that I have dreamed up. Everything I know that the black faculty who’ve been working on this for years have dreamed of, in collaboration with the black community leaders and with allies at the faculty of medicine. This is our wildest dreams actualized. So the history is already being made and it’s a beautiful thing to witness.
Jordan: Well, I hope you’re crazy proud of that because that’s fantastic. And congratulations again on your honor, and thank you so much for taking a few minutes on the morning of your graduation.
Chika: Thank you so much for having me. This has really been a pleasure.
Jordan: That was Chika Stacy Oriuwa who is off to graduation and a lot more. It was also The Big Story. If you would like more, head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. Find us on Twitter @thebigstoryfpn, or in your favourite podcast player, we are in all of them, Apple, Google, and Stitcher and Spotify.
Tell us what you think. Give us a rating. Give us a review. Write us an email if you’d like, the address is email@example.com. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, we’ll talk tomorrow.
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