Seeing Medicine in Different Colors: A Spotlight on Black Pre-Med Students

According to the Association of Medical Colleges, approximately five percent of America’s practicing doctors are Black/African American. With Black History Month kicking off on Thursday, I sat down with a couple of pre-med African American Hope students to discuss this percentage gap, their inspirations and how they hope to inspire others in their prospective medical field.

When asked what she wished more people knew about the challenges Black students face in STEM, Deborah Akwafo (‘27) expressed that, “the pressure of looking ‘smart’ [is] elevated when you’re an African-American” because “you’re already most likely the only person that looks like you in the room. Therefore, you need to stand out.” It is no secret that medicine isn’t the only industry lacking in diversity. Across white-collar careers, there is a gap in the percentage of minority workers, specifically African Americans, versus the majority, White Americans.

Though statistically Black Americans make up around thirteen percent of the population, 2022 data from the United States Census Bureau confirms that the percentage of them living in poverty is double that of White Americans. American slavery, segregation and institutional racism are a few of the factors that have contributed to this staggering difference in income. 

Because of her racial identity, Akwafo feels as though “you need to work 10 times as hard just so you’re not put into a box”. What is this box? Everyone holds prejudice–subconscious judgments about others due to stereotypes–to some degree. The effect of history on the African American community often still influences stereotypes placed on them. But the truth is, the color of a person’s skin has no impact on their intellectual or physical capabilities. 

Students of all fields, backgrounds and races each have their own challenges and their own unique stories. But, African American students specifically are working not only to improve the staggered demographic statistics, but they are working to eventually save lives. Doctors are a key part of our society, and the years of time and money they put into their careers sometimes aren’t acknowledged as they should be. 

Reflecting on her childhood, Akwafo remembers often visiting a hospital due to her grandma’s career in administration. “I noticed that there were black nurses, but I don’t recall ever seeing a doctor that looked like me,” recalls Akwafo. Seeing racial familiarity in healthcare environments brings Akwafo comfort, and she wants to “be that comfort for other people” in her future career, but not as a nurse, as a doctor.

Having grown up in Nigeria until the age of nine, Chisom Okogbue (‘27) noticed a difference between the healthcare systems in each country. America’s hospitals were much more developed compared to those back home. This sparked a desire in Okogbue to be a part of much-needed change in Nigeria’s healthcare system. After obtaining her medical degree, she “want(s) to go back to [her] home country to help bridge the medical knowledge gap and serve [her] community”. Though she is one person, Okogbue believes that one person is all it takes to start a movement of change.

Both Okogbue and Akwafo are involved in the Phelps Scholars Program, and the Pan-African Student Association at Hope College. Akwofu feels that “having a community here that is rewriting history…empowers me to keep going.” Though not all of her peers may be set on a similar career path, seeing students of all backgrounds in higher education inspires Akwafo.

From their inspirations to their daily challenges, Akwafo and Okogbue are joyful as they look into their futures. Though their career aspirations are a good reminder to keep working hard in their classes, they are making sure to treasure their time at Hope College, and influence those around them before they spread their wings. One day, they’ll be part of the five percent pushing for more, but today they are students driven to use their identity as their strength.

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