As a newcomer to the T4D team, I’ve anticipated our first stop — Bethune Cookman — for several months. I woke up that morning feeling like Ethan Hawke on Training Day — bright-eyed, bushy-tailed…eager to launch into action. I’d practiced my speaking points, tucked a few jokes in my pocket, and was ready to engage any and every student possible…..or so I thought.
At our first break, a student from Beaufort, SC darted in my direction. As she approached, I could tell by her puzzled expression she had been mulling over a few thoughts. “Hey Italo — do you feel racism played a part in your path to becoming a physician?” And like a candidate being asked an off-guard question for the first time, my mile-wide grin slowly contracted.
Here I was, prepared to deliver my rehearsed “Phoenix” narrative — and an inquisitive student completely penetrated to my core. In that instant, I had to step outside of myself to recalibrate; I found myself tapping into vacuum-packed memories of what it was like as a young minority, below the Mason-Dixon, trying to navigate a demanding field at a time when the racial climate was just as tumultuous.
I shared with the student the old adage that, as a minority — we often must work twice as hard just to be considered equal. This is not a curse or a scarlet letter, but rather an opportunity to showcase how our inherent strength. However, I made sure to offer an additional spin: “Naturally, as a talented, intelligent, and passionate student (such as yourself) — it should be a standard to work twice as hard…for no other merit than your own. In doing so, you’ll establish a brand of excellence that will garner the respect of any person — race aside.”
She smiled back at me, as though granting permission for that mile-wide grin to return. “Thank you Italo, I think I get the point. I’ll work hard, because I can.”
Indeed — we all can.