An Aspiring (Black Female) Doctor

Nyssa Kantorek

I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was in elementary school. I’ve done all the research, I’m confident in what I want to do, and I’m familiar with the challenges more than anything else. After getting accepted into Vanderbilt where I’d be in close proximity to one of the top-ranked medical schools in the nation, I knew I took a pretty significant step to where I wanted to be. However, my challenges go far beyond the pre-med curriculum and the many years of schooling. Academic challenges have never been the main focus of my life because I know I can always overcome them by changing my study habits, my course load, or my extracurricular schedule. As I’m getting ready to walk for the fashion show in Harambee this year, I’m reminded of where my family came from, and how their struggles are motivating me every day to be the best I can be. As first generation kids, my brother and I are always aware of the sacrifices our parents made and how it has impacted how we think about our education and our careers. They both immigrated from their homes to find opportunity here and started a new life in an unfamiliar place. We spent our whole childhood learning to work three times as hard because, despite our mixed heritage, we identify as Black, and others have always seen us as such. I’m proud of where I come from because I have a strong support system from my family. They believe in taking what you want, no matter what. People may have a head start on you but that doesn’t mean you can’t try to catch up to the best of your ability. I truly felt confident and secure in my potential to be what I want to be all throughout my life, but I started noticing that the world doesn’t see that in me. I work hard, but people still doubt me. Coming from a mixed household, I grew up “colorblind” of sorts until around middle school, when I started really hearing what people were saying at my predominantly White, rural Texas school. There weren’t enough Black students there to defy the stereotypes my classmates grew up unknowingly internalizing. I started noticing my race when I started getting comments such as, “You talk really White I don’t even count you as a Black person anymore… She’s the whitest Black person I know.” I didn’t understand why being in honors classes and making A’s was deemed as “White behavior” and why they didn’t think my language reflected who I was. I was just being myself, and somehow, to my classmates, that didn’t match my appearance. It didn’t get better in high school. When word got around I was applying to upper tier schools, I didn’t feel any support. I remember students from previous years attempting to get into the same schools I was applying for but were empowered instead of doubted. My own college counselor, upon hearing what schools I was applying for, chuckled and commented, “Wow, that’s ambitious.” For a school that claimed to graduate college-ready students, I didn’t feel like they ever believed I would get accepted. When I did, they plastered my picture all over school calendars and pamphlets, to put on a front of “diversity”, and as if they were there supporting me throughout the entire process. My classmates didn’t seem to understand my acceptance either. When wearing my Vanderbilt shirts I would get questions like, “Oh so you’re, like, really going?” Well of course! But I didn’t fully understand how to stand up for myself because, honestly, I felt unprepared to deal with that. My parents told us all about how much harder we have to work to achieve the same level of success as our white classmates, but I never really saw what that looked like until that moment. I was the first student from my high school to get into Vanderbilt, but I graduated with people in the community thinking it was a community college. After arriving at Vandy, I felt more comfortable with who I was and I definitely felt supported by the community. But I noticed other issues baring their face in my perfect college experience. I noticed that the higher level STEM courses I’m in, the more likely I’ll be one of the only POCs in the room. That comes with pressure I’ve never known before. I was always above average in high school, so despite the disbelief of where I was going for college, people respected me and my abilities. I never felt like I had to prove myself. Now, the absolute last thing I want is for a professor to hand me back an exam with a score of anything less than average. So I study. I spend hours in the library, studying while my classmates spend precious time and money going out on weeknights or partying through their weekends. I study while I’m sitting through tech rehearsals, and on the way to my practices and meetings. I study on plane rides home and during my “breaks” from school. I study so that I will not uphold an outdated and false stereotype. So that I will not give anyone an excuse to insult my intelligence by saying it’s because of the color of my skin that I can’t do as well as other students. So that my professors will hand me back my exam pleasantly surprised and slightly guilty for thinking I’m capable of anything less. I’m confident in myself, and I self-validate every chance I get. But it’s exhausting having to prove everyone wrong with everything I do. To have to answer the ignorant that ask, “Oh are you there on a sports scholarship?” with I applied and was accepted due to my high school academic achievements and my accomplishments outside the classroom. To answer the disrespectful, who see my mom’s Vanderbilt car sticker, and ask, “Do y’all live at the apartments there?” that of course not – I go to school there. To fake laugh at everyone that has told me (and not any of my other classmates), “Wow you know doctors go through a lot of schooling,” as if I haven’t done my research or am unfamiliar with the field I want to enter. To defend myself against the doctors that have told me, “Orthopedics is a man’s field, you know! Not many women want to do it.” As if I should just avoid the specialty I’ve been looking forward to for years just because men “dominate” it. When thinking about what people say or think, sometimes it’s frustrating because I’m only an undergrad student dealing with this much already. Most of the time, though, it’s empowering to know that I’m still here because I’ve definitely had my share of people try to discourage me or put me down. But I also want to take a minute and say that despite the challenges, I know it’ll be worth it. People before me have gone through much worse - things I can only read about. Yet, they have come out being the best in their fields. So I feel confident in my abilities to be the best at what I do, not despite the challenges, but because of the challenges I’ve faced and the people who have told me otherwise. Female doctors I’ve met encouraged me to continue down my path because they know how difficult it is to be taken seriously in your career. I believe as long as we continue to be open about what we’re facing and as long as we continue to empower and support each other throughout, we can change the fact that we’re underrepresented in STEM fields. We are just as capable as everyone else, maybe even more so because we come with unique perspectives, challenges, and backgrounds. We need more Black women in STEM, not only out of necessity but because we’re good at what we do. With everything that’s going on around me and the pressure I put on myself to work three times as hard as my classmates, I strive to be positive. I strive to make sure that I won’t ever get bogged down by people who are not worth my time, who are not working as hard as me, and who have not done nearly as much as I have. I schedule my time carefully; I make sure that I’m doing the best I can while also taking care of myself. There’s no point of being where you want to be if you’re sleep deprived, miserable, and stressed out. I dance, I participate in campus events that speak to me, and I’m not afraid to hang out with my friends and joke about my course load at the end of the day. But always, in the back of my mind, I’m sure to never forget where I came from, where I want to go, and who I want to be.

This is a little bit different than what I usually write, but I run a blog geared mostly at students, especially if they’re pre-med. It’s a place for advice and a more honest perspective, so you can read more here.

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