Recall that about six years ago, a powerhouse hip hop team led by Kanye West was involved in a popular cell phone provider marketing campaign. The flagship advertisement featured shots of West, The Game, and Ludacris navigating their native cities while using the sponsor’s phones and services. Granted, I wasn’t convinced to rush to the local Best Buy, but the anthem for the advertising campaign “Where You At? (The Whole City Behind Us)” was pretty catchy. Fundamentally, the campaign was aiming to create a link between community loyalty and the products offered by this particular provider. At first I was simply impressed with the production value of the song. In time, though, the theme proved to be more relevant than I expected.
Imagine attending college in one of the most liberal, ethnically diverse, and metropolitan cities in the country. Now imagine having to transplant to a wholesome college town in the middle of rural Virginia for medical school. The differences would be staggering, right? Exactly. Nowhere were the distinctions more apparent than in the clinical environment. As a third year medical student, I had the opportunity to meet patients who represented socio-demographic categories I had never encountered. Conversely, I was the first male African American medical student many of my patients had ever seen. This was also true for patients who themselves were African American. One such patient, we’ll call him Mr. A, had to undergo a below-the-knee amputation secondary to severe peripheral artery disease. The surgery was successful and Mr. A recovered from anesthesia with no complications. Later that afternoon I decided to pay him a visit before leaving the hospital for the day. Mr. A was joined by his family. I introduced myself to the family and proceeded with Mr. A’s assessment. After finishing, his family asked me a few questions: Where was I from? What were my intentions as a physician? How many years did I have left? This was nothing new so I fielded the questions with no problems. Then, in one of the most pivotal moments of my medical education, one of Mr. A’s relatives said to me, “We’re so proud of you.” This woman, who had met me only moments ago, offered the same affirmation that my own mother would frequently extend to me before she passed away. “Joseph, I’m so proud of you.” I realized in that moment that this medical school yolk I had been carrying for the past two and half years was not resting singularly on my shoulders. There was an entire community of people whom I had never met who had a vested interest in my success. I was a testament to their hope, a product of their righteous sacrifice. I had defied the probabilities. My achievements were not my own, but they belonged to Mr. A, his family, and every person who waited for the day to tell a young black aspiring physician, “I’m proud of you.”
Every student who chooses to enter the health profession is carrying the hopes and expectations of their loved ones. But this is a particularly poignant truth for those of us from underrepresented ethnic and cultural groups. Our achievements fly in the face of centuries of marginalization and disempowerment. Each of us is a reminder that the present is much brighter than the past, and that the future is poised to be even brighter. Perhaps you haven’t yet received this type of encouragement from a perfect stranger, but when you find yourself in the throes of academic rigor please remember this one thing: We’ve got the whole city behind us.