“To some people, I’m not what a doctor is supposed to look like”: U of T’s med school valedictorian shares her story
In March, Chika Oriuwa discovered she’d been elected U of T med school’s latest valedictorian. We spoke to her about why she wants to be a doctor, the need for diversity in medicine and what it was like to deliver her commencement address on video.
As told to Courtney Shea
“I was born in Ottawa and moved to Brampton with my parents in 1997. It was the quintessential suburban immigrant childhood. Both of my parents moved to Canada from Nigeria; my dad worked as a nurse and my mom as a personal support worker. They might have been part of the reason I wanted to become a doctor, but I was mostly inspired by my uncle, who was a neonatal pediatrician in the States. As a kid I was obsessed with babies—I was always walking around with a doll in my arms, always pretending to take care of it. And then when I learned what my uncle did it was like, Wow, that’s a job? I want to do that.
“In high school, I had a knack for science and math, and I also loved English and communication. I was valedictorian of my class, and I did my undergrad in Heath Science at McMaster. The goal was always med school, and when the time came to choose, I picked U of T—partly because it is a prestigious institution and partly because it has a black medical students’ association, which at the time was rare in Canadian med schools. I went in understanding that medicine in Canada and in Toronto doesn’t reflect the diversity that we see in our country and our city, and that in some people’s minds, I don’t fit the image of what a doctor looks like. I learned this even before I started med school. Some friends and I went to New York to celebrate finishing our undergrad, before we started studying for the MCAT. Coming home, we got stopped by the border patrol, who asked us what we did. We all said we were preparing for med school, and then the guard looked directly at me and asked, “Even you?” It was like he couldn’t fathom that this could be true.
“I admit I was disappointed when I arrived at the Black Medical Students Association welcome night a couple of weeks before orientation and there wasn’t a single other person from my year. There were a handful black students in the year above me and the year above them, but nobody from the class of 2020. At the time, I thought, maybe they’re not here because they’re still working their summer jobs or still on break. But then on orientation day I arrived at the stethoscope ceremony, which is this tradition for first years. They call us up on stage to accept your stethoscopes, and then at the end we all stand together and read the Hippocratic oath. It was really beautiful, but as I looked around the room I could see that in a class of 259 students, I was the only black person. In the moment I remember feeling like, do I really belong here? I wish I could tell that younger version of myself that everything was going to work out. That I was going to have an amazing experience at med school and make friends who would see me through the good and the bad.
“Med school is a huge amount of work, but it’s also a lot of fun. I spent so many hours studying at Second Cup with my best friends Kimberly and Victoria. I co-wrote a musical called A Matter of Time that was performed by students in the medical program. I successfully percussed a lung base in front of my preceptor (that’s a joke for med students—if you know, you know). But none of those good and so-called “normal” experiences changed the fact that much of my time as a medical student was defined by being othered, by being told, implicitly and explicitly, that I didn’t belong.
“I have been in emergency rooms where the person on the table assumed I was a janitor. Don’t get me wrong—the custodial staff are the backbone of a hospital, and we’re seeing that now more than ever—but I was wearing scrubs and had a stethoscope around my neck, and still this person couldn’t imagine that I was a doctor. I have been on rounds and had a patient say they weren’t comfortable having me in the room; mind you, they didn’t seem to have a problem with any of my other classmates being there. These are just a couple of examples, but the experience was constant. Even if I wanted to, divorcing my identity as a physician from my identity as a black person wasn’t an option. And I didn’t want to.
“In 2017 U of T launched launched its Black Student Application Program for medical students—the result of so much hard work and dedication on the part of black faculty, community members and allies in the department of medicine. The fact that this happened in the same year I started was serendipitous. I became a public ambassador for the program, realizing early on that the best thing I could do was to get my own narrative out there: the triumphs as well as the barriers and experiences I’ve encountered that are unique to my experience as a black woman in medical school. There were times when the public nature of the work wasn’t easy. In 2017 I appeared in a Toronto Star story about the university’s efforts to bring more black students into the medical program, and some of the things people said in the comments section were just heinous and explicitly racist. People who said they would never agree to be treated by me, people making comments about my hair, people who thought I should shut up and be grateful, rather than speak out.
“In mid-March, when Covid struck, I came home early from an elective clinical trip home to Trinidad and Tobago. A week later, we were pulled off our rotations. And a couple of days after that, I got engaged: my boyfriend, Dale, woke me up in the middle of the night, and when I came out he had covered the living room in candles and roses. It was just a classic romantic proposal. He works for the provincial government, and he is absolutely the unsung hero in my story—dating medical student is no joke. He has made almost every meal we’ve eaten for the last two years, he has driven me to the hospital at 3 A.M. When we found out that I got accepted into my first choice for residency, he was as excited than I was, if not more. Then, when I found out I’d been elected valedictorian, I ran into the room to tell him. I realized just in time that he was on a Zoom call for work, so I just did jazz hands and a little celebratory dance.
“Some people in my life have warned me about putting myself out there—I am certainly not the first person to hear that prioritizing advocacy can get in the way of other opportunities. But when that Star article came out, my fellow students had my back 100 per cent. I think that’s why being elected valedictorian by my graduating class means so much. It wasn’t that I earned this immense honour in spite of all of the work I’ve done to advocate for justice and equality; it was because of that work. The valedictorian is speaking on behalf of herself, but also on behalf of her class. I got so many texts and emails of support—some from friends, but others from people who I just had a class with or had seen around on campus—and the feeling I got was that they wanted my message to be our message. If you want to know what allyship looks like, you can look at the other 258 students in my graduating class.
“Figuring out what I wanted to say was not easy. Then one night I was watching Becoming, the Netflix documentary about Michelle Obama based on her memoir. At one point, she talks about her experiences as the first black first lady of the United States. She explained how painful and frustrating it was to see her story told incorrectly and unfairly. ‘If you don’t get out there and define yourself,’ she said, ‘you’ll be quickly and inaccurately defined by others.’ That sentiment resonated with me. It articulated something powerful about my own experience, but was also broad enough to apply to my fellow graduates as we set out in the world and figure out how we define ourselves. When we look at what is going on in the world now, we realize that silence isn’t good enough.
“I recorded my speech in Dale’s parents’ living room, and handed in on May 16, nine days before death of George Floyd and all of the civil unrest that we have been seeing in the United States and Canada. At first I thought, Oh god, is it too late to change it? I felt like I wanted to add something about injustice and the tragic undervaluing of black lives. But then, when I thought about what I’d written, I realized that I had already expressed those feelings.
“Obviously I wish I had been able to express myself at Convocation Hall, in front of my fellow students and faculty, wearing the cap and gown, having the announcer tell everyone to hold their applause to the end and then having some people burst out anyway. Instead, our convocation took place on Microsoft Teams. It was a bunch of different speeches from the dean, the vice-dean, the class presidents. We had a keynote speech from James Makokis, who is a two-spirit Cree doctor from Alberta. And we had my address. That morning I was running around, getting ready, when my phone started buzzing non-stop. I picked it up and saw that more than a dozen of my friends had sent a screen shot of a Tweet from the prime minister congratulating me on my accomplishment. That was unexpected—and maybe something that wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t in this unique situation. Part of me still feels like we were robbed of this important rite of passage, but then, so much about Covid-19 has been unfair, and at least for me there is a silver lining. My address that would have been viewed by hundreds has been viewed by thousands of people all over the world. Maybe a young person who looks like me is thinking that she would like to be a doctor one day.
“It was certainly gratifying to learn that next year’s class of first-year medical students, the class of 2024, includes 24 black students, which is an all-time record. To know that I played a part in that is probably the thing that makes me proudest.
“I watched the ceremony with Dale and his parents in their living room. The day before he had surprised me with a cap and gown. I felt like it was silly to complain about not getting to wear one, but I guess he just knew. Afterward, I went out in to the backyard and—yes—I threw my cap in the air. The next day it was back to studying. I’m getting ready to write medical licensing exams, so I haven’t had a lot of time to process. At the end of this month, I start my residency in psychiatry, which is not where I would have imagined myself. I always thought I wanted to specialize in internal medicine. Psychiatry was the last rotation I did as a med student and it hit me that this was a way to help the most marginalized and vulnerable populations in our society. The black community in particular is underserved. I think I can make a difference, and I can’t wait to get started.”