by Kayla Holston
“Kayla, you choose the music. You’re the most urban.” As a medical student at a PWI (Predominantly White Institution), I’ve become comfortable with being the only Black person in the room. From the engineering undergrad at the University of Virginia to the Master of Public Health at Emory University to now medical school at Thomas Jefferson University, PWIs have become quite familiar. But, whenever I forget just where I am and what assumptions I’m surrounded with, comments like this remind me.
My journey as a graduate student has been about finding out who I am when the security of undergrad has been torn away—who I am outside of school. Am I a yoga enthusiast, a family girl, or a travel fanatic? As it turns out, I am all of those. What I have discovered, though, is that I am also a pensive Black woman who can be disloyal to herself when it comes to confronting racism. And here’s how realized that:
At Thomas Jefferson University, our curriculum is divided into blocks, and each block focuses on a system (e.g., cardiology, pulmonology, neurology). During each block, we spend a few weeks dissecting Sally, our group’s human gift. One afternoon, two lab mates and I decided to go to the dissection lab while it was empty to re-dissect Sally as a form of studying. Since we were alone in the room, we decided it would be nice to play some music. That’s when it happened: “Kayla, you choose the music. You’re the most urban.”
All I could do was laugh. More of a crying laugh, but you know. I thought to myself, if Sally wasn’t here, I’d let you have it. Out of respect for her, I’ll shut up. That’s what I told myself but, honestly, I laughed because I wanted to make him feel more comfortable in a moment he had made uncomfortable. He laughed with me, and I became the “cool Black girl” who didn’t get upset over “silly jokes.’” Now he “jokes” whenever he sees me.
Being a Black medical student puts me in a weird place—I don’t want to be the difficult Black girl. Team learning is even more important here than in my past curricula, and I don’t want to ruin relationships with my assigned team members and then find myself struggling to group study with them. The comment my lab mate made illuminated a quality in myself that I am now grappling with. In academic situations, I tend to be conflict-averse at the expense of my mental health. I believe the reason is a combination of not wanting to hinder my learning (obviously) and not wanting to make situations awkward for myself and others.
I wish I could say, after this realization, I cut off every prejudiced person and clapped back to every racist remark. Still a work in progress. What I can say, though, is that I have become intentional about my mental health and the company I keep. I have embraced therapy for all facets of my life, began regularly engaging in mindfulness through yoga, and, most importantly, allowed God to be my center of peace. (Quick pause: Different approaches work for different people but, if you have not tried it yet, I highly recommend hot yoga as a healthy way to relieve stress and stay fit. But first, try God. Nothing will give you peace until that part is handled.)
Anyway, I have also become okay with the idea of a close, small circle. It is kind of crazy how we feel obligated to spend time with people just because we have in the past. I finally asked myself, why do you let this white girl (excuse me, white passing) keep talking to you like you’re stupid? Why do you voluntarily do Friday dinners with her? So, guess what? I. Just. Stopped. Not groundbreaking, but for me it was. I thought I needed to keep every friend I had because, if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have anymore friends and medical school is tough without camaraderie. Well, medical school is challenging either way, so may as well do it with woke people, even if there are only three.
So, what advice would I give to a future BGDMedS?
- Spend some time figuring out who you are because your identity will be illuminated and tested during this trying but exciting time of your life.
- Make a plan for caring for yourself before you get here. If you don’t, it probably won’t happen.
- Surround yourself with love and truth, nothing more and nothing less.
There are plenty of people who decide who I am before I open my mouth. But, even when I don’t know who I am, God is certain of my identity. So, I abide in him, embrace what He says of me, and care for myself. I hope you will too.
Kayla Holston is pursuing an MD at the Sidney Kimmel Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University. Kayla earned a Master of Public Health in Health Care Management at Emory University and a Bachelor of Science in Biomedical Engineering & Cognitive Science at the University of Virginia. She is particularly interested in utilizing her educational background to improve patient flow and healthcare staff workflow in order to improve efficiency in understaffed health systems. Kayla’s current research focuses on improving quality and staff workflow in a Malawian health center in collaboration with Malawian medical providers and architecture professionals. Her second research focus is in orthopedic surgery, particularly with regard to how psychosocial factors affect hip pathology and postoperative outcomes. Professionally, Kayla hopes to blend the roles of a physician and healthcare administrator to continue projects like this, serving patients on both an individual and organizational policy level.