The Wake Forest University School of Medicine Chapter of the Student National Medical Association honored some of its rising stars Sunday evening.
The 19th Annual SNMA Medical Excellence Banquet attracted a crowd to the downtown Marriott. It is an annual send off for graduating minority Medical School students, who in the months ahead will begin residency programs at hospitals across the nation.
Dr. Maya Angelou, a Winston-Salem resident and Wake Forest University professor, delivered the keynote address. Prior to her formal remarks, Angelou greeted a small cadre of students and dignitaries, including former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, who made history as the first black female senator in the 1990s when the people of Illinois elected her.
Braun said Angelou played an integral role in her campaign.
“She came out to help me win the election, not just for my campaign but for me personally,” Braun said. “(She) was just a valuable ally and a real light of wisdom for me. She gives a lot. She gives more than she takes.”
Angelou opened her speech by singing several lines from the gospel spiritual “God Put a Rainbow in the Sky,” which references the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark, where God tells His faithful servant to have hope, because brighter days are coming. A 19th century poet expounded on the initial idea, adding that the rainbow can also be found in the clouds, Angelou said. She told the audience that, like the rainbow, God’s promise of hope is all around them.
“Clouds can go lower and lower that people cannot see the possibility of hope,” she said. “…What this organization … means to say to young men and women is that there’s a possibility of light and you are necessary, in fact you’re more than necessary; you are imperative.”
Angelou – who has lent her name to community health initiatives at both WFU’s Baptist Medical Center and Novant Health’s Forsyth Medical Center – said her respect and admiration for African Americans in the medical profession prompted her to attend the banquet.
“I insisted upon coming this evening,” she declared. “…I wanted to come because I wanted to talk with people who dare to be rainbows in the clouds.”
Angelou related a story about one of her earliest encounters with a medical professional. Angelou’s grandmother, who was raising her, had loaned money to a white dentist in town when he ran into financial trouble. Some time later, Angelou, who admits she had a penchant for the candy sold in her grandmother’s store, developed a painful abscess.
When Angelou’s grandmother took her to the white dentist, he refused to treat Angelou.
“He said, ‘Oh, Annie, I don’t do that. I’d rather put my hand in a dog’s mouth,’” she related.
Angelou’s grandmother was forced to take her to the black dentist. Although the second dentist’s office was much farther away and she was in considerable pain, Angelou says his kindness made it well worth the journey.
“The black dentist saved my life, not just by saving my teeth but by reminding me that being black is not the worst thing that can happen,” she said. “Somehow, some way, you have saved people’s lives. You have saved their spirits, their hopes, their dreams… thank you for daring to be rainbows in the clouds.”
The SNMA is said to be the oldest and largest student-run organization focused on the needs and concerns of medical students of color. Incoming Chapter President Timberly Butler said the organization, and the connections she has formed through it, have proved invaluable during her first year of med school.
“I’m sad the fourth year students are leaving because they’ve really been the big brothers and sisters that I never had,” said the North Carolina Central University alumna. “That first year was just so challenging, but they believed in me and wouldn’t let me give up, wouldn’t let me accept mediocrity in my grades.”
Banquet Co-Chairs Jennifer Udom and Jahanett Ramirez and other SNMA members hosted the banquet as a means of thanking fourth-year students for their service to the chapter
“This year’s class has been phenomenal in many ways,” said Ramirez, noting the prestigious residencies many of the seniors landed. “…They’ve also served as incredible mentors and friends for those who are coming behind them.”
As an aspiring physician, Ramirez said she was moved by Angelou’s words.
“It’s incredible that she took time just to talk to us and showing that she cares about inspiring us,” said the Texas native. “It just makes me realize that there’s such a big impact that we could do as med students and as doctors. Just having somebody say, ‘We need you,’ it really means a lot.”
Udom took Angelou’s address as a call to action.
“It’s daunting but it’s inspiring, because you don’t pick this type of career unless you actually want to make a difference,” said the Raleigh native. “It’s something to live up to.”
For more information about SNMA, visit www.snma.org.