Four Black best friends who met at the University of Calgary not only graduated together this year — each of them were also accepted into medical school.
“For me, this isn’t just my victory and this isn’t just a victory for the four of us, this is a victory for our Black communities as a whole,” said Nicole M’Carthy, valedictorian for the Class of 2020 Bachelor of Health Sciences program.
M’Carthy will head to University of Toronto where she will be one of 24 Black students in the faculty of medicine for the class of 2024. It is the largest group in Canadian history. Just four years prior, there was only one Black person in a class of 259 medical students.
Whitney Ereyi-Osas and Elizabeth Dayo will be two out of four Black medical students at the University of Calgary, and Ruth Legese will be one of three Black students at the University of Alberta medical school.
The four friends met through the University of Calgary health sciences program and have been close ever since.
“It’s amazing,” said M’Carthy, who emigrated from Ghana and will be the first physician in her family. “We’ve been each other’s closest friends and cheerleaders … It was a really beautiful end to our undergraduate degrees to all end up in places where we wanted to be. It’s a really cool accomplishment.”
Despite the victory, there’s been backlash to their success on social media.
“I haven’t even started university but people have already been questioning my merit and assuming that we got into medical school because of our Blackness,” says M’Carthy.
“It’s unfortunately a common experience for many Black medical students … We’re told to pursue higher education to prove our merit and to be successful but then when you get into these places, people still don’t give you the credit that you deserve for the things you’ve achieved so it’s like you really can’t win.”
“You see it online a lot — the idea that Black students are taking away spots from white students, that Black students aren’t qualified to hold those spaces,” said Ereyi-Osas, a first-generation Nigerian Canadian.
“It’s very disheartening to hear because it doesn’t take into account the idea of how whiteness plays a role in allowing people to enter spaces and that systemic inequities prevent Black people from being able to enter those spaces in the first place.”
Although Dayo’s father is a doctor and her mother a nurse, originally from Nigeria, her mother advised her to work twice as hard as anyone else in Canada.
“My mom always said as a Black woman, you need to get twice as many mentors and experiences, twice as better marks,” said Dayo.
“That drive will allow you to break through any challenges or any kind of criticism you may face … because there are a lot of systemic barriers that’ll prevent you from getting where you want to be.”
Systemic racism in medical schools
In 1918, Canadian medical schools such as Queen’s University banned Black students from applying to medical school.
The policy was enforced until 1965 but not officially rescinded until 2018.
“The Black community lost a generation of doctors,” said M’Carthy.
Another reason for the low number of Black physicians in North America lies in an early 20th-century report.
Many aspects of the current medical school system in both the United States and Canada are based on a 1910 landmark report called the Flexner report. It set the standard on what medical education should look like — shutting down many medical schools, including nearly all Black medical schools, at the time. The report stated Black doctors should only treat Black patients and should be trained in hygiene and serve primarily as “sanitarians”.
But universities across the country are working to change their admissions requirements to be more inclusive.
Both the University of Alberta and University of Calgary have recently launched new application streams for Black students.
“Recognizing the systematic racism that has existed in our Black community, the [Cumming School of Medicine] is implementing a Black Applicant Admissions Process beginning in July 2020,” the University of Calgary said in an emailed statement on Thursday.
It’s one of the policy changes that the Black Medical Students Association (BMSA) at both universities has been calling for.
According to the University of Calgary’s BMSA website, the group has been “dedicated to the dismantling of racism in medicine” and has published calls to action to increase diversity in the medical school and to equip all graduates to provide unbiased care to BIPOC patients.
The University of Alberta medical school said in an emailed statement it is establishing a Black applicant admissions process “in response to and in collaboration with the BMSA … and [will] establish a working group to further explore opportunities for recruitment, financial aid and application support.” The new process will start next month.
Black Girls MD
With her medical degree, Legese aspires to make changes for refugees and Indigenous people in Canada in the healthcare field.
As refugees from Ethiopia, she and her family experienced some micro-aggressions from health-care professionals in Canada.
“[They] would make us feel a little less welcome or would make us hesitant in opening up about our health and backgrounds,” said Legese.
As a member of a foster family who has raised many Indigenous children over the past 10 years, she also sees first-hand the racism the children and their biological parents face.
“In the medical system, they’re being stereotyped in a certain way that makes them feel less open to go to care,” said Legese. “I hope that throughout my journey in medicine, I can use my experiences to advocate for better implicit bias and empathy training related to refugee health.”
Ereyi-Osas hopes to shed light on how factors of race and income can determine health outcomes.
“That aspect is really missing in medicine,” said Whitney, who runs a camp at U of C teaching health literacy to refugee and immigrant youth. “Race plays a huge role.
“There’s an assumption that people of colour handle disease better … They aren’t necessarily believed or taken seriously when they talk about their symptoms and that can lead to wrong prescriptions and problems later on.”
The four women are also planning to launch their own YouTube channel this summer called Black Girls MD.
“We hope that this channel can help inspire other young Black girls to pursue this route as a career,” said Ereyi-Osas.