Inspiration is key to students from underrepresented groups

February 2, 2010 at 11:19 PM

Inspiration is key to students from underrepresented groups


Tamara Buchanan NU’07 and Jim Stellar


When I was Dean at Northeastern, Tamara worked a little in my research laboratory but came to me with a proposition.  She noted that one of the Universities goals was to encourage diversity and accomplishment, particularly in pursuit by undergraduates of premedical and biomedical pre-professional careers.  So, she asked me how she could raise $23,000 to have a Boston city-wide event with a person who spoke from example about how an African American can rise from inner city schools to become a renowned neurosurgeon at a major university.  It worked; somehow she got the money and had a truly inspiring event.  I know as I attended.  Then she went on a personal journey to the country of Belize where she witnessed firsthand how medicine struggles to serve people from 3rd world countries.  This was an inspiration to her.  I have asked her to talk as a black woman interested in a biomedical career about these two events.  Then, together, we will have some comments on motivation, confidence, and how these two different but inspiring experiences operated on her thinking beyond the classroom.


Let’s start with the Ben Carson event.  Tell us what went through your mind in organizing it and how this experience impacted your growth as a person.


At the time when the idea to plan the event came into fruition, I was working as a pre-medical regional director for American Medical Student Association and functioned as the chapter president for the Northeastern University campus or “pre-med club” as we were also known. As a club we decided that we needed to have a large scale pre-medical conference to continue our efforts of providing knowledge about applying to medical school, community service and test preparation options as well as having keynotes to speak about how they ended up in their current profession. Jim, do you remember speaking at our very first conference? For this next conference I had the idea to have Dr. Ben Carson as a keynote. Dr. Carson was an inspiration to me for at very young age and I felt that his message and “Think Big” philosophy would be an excellent theme for the conference and one most students can relate to. The planning was not easy and the entire chapter worked fervently to make it happen despite the many setbacks we faced.  While planning this event I was in my final year at the university. I felt myself growing in many directions while learning the bureaucratics of event planning at my university. The notion to cancel the event came to mind because of the obstacles that kept arising.  In the end, the event ended up very successful and well attended. We were also proud of being able to open the event to the community as a Northeastern sponsored event. Looking out into the audience while doing Dr. Carson’s introduction I saw really young students sharing seats in the front row, many people sitting in the back on the ground and people sitting on the window panes of our filled to capacity ballroom. It made me realize how influential and inspirational this humble man has been to so many. And I was grateful to share the experience of meeting one of my childhood role models with the Northeastern and Boston community. At that point something changed in me and I knew that I needed to work closely with the younger generation and continue to help them realize that anything is possible with hard work and persistence, as people like Dr. Carson and you Jim have continued to help me understand.



Now, let’s turn to your personal experiences in Belize but focus again on what went through your mind and how this experience impacted your growth as a person.


After graduating I did a three month internship at a biotechnology company during the summer.  I knew I wanted to do some international volunteer work before finding a full time job, since I had decided that I was not ready yet to head straight to medical school after undergrad. I found a really amazing organization named Cornerstone Foundation in Belize Central America during my search, and decided that’s where I will move that fall. The organization has programming in Women’s health, HIV/AIDS awareness and youth programming that supported the San Ignacio community. I saved a significant amount of money from my internship and used it to travel to Belize. It was an amazing experience from beginning to end. I shared a house with three other volunteers from different areas of the globe. I learned a lot from them about their home life and aspirations. Together we learned more about Belize, its healthcare system, the culture, and how the individual work projects we did impacted the community. During the two and a half months I was there the only book I brought with me to read was Tracey Kidder’s Mountains beyond Mountains. It was amazing to read about the work Dr. Paul Farmer continues to do in Haiti.  It helped me to also understand that I wanted to now incorporate human rights efforts into my future career. I believe every student should go abroad after college and do volunteer work, especially if you are interested in a career in the biomedical field. I grew a lot in ways I can’t even explain that summer. My experience not only made me a more humbling person to other people’s struggles but shaped the way I view my future career. I hope in the future to work in ways that impacts the way we view healthcare and health policies as well as human rights and social justices’ efforts on a global scale. I also hope to continue to help young people realize that there are so many resources out there to help them achieve whatever goal they want to pursue. Some of these greatest resources are mentors and role models, so it’s important to seek them out.


We think this growth would not have happened if it were not for these experiences married to content impacting what we have called in this blog otherlobe thinking.  Notice that they all happened in a group context.  The social environment associated with a work project, is a powerful teacher not only of the soft skills and team work that makes what the business community call “work readiness” in a college graduate, but it leads to deeper thinking, like reading Kidder’s book about Paul Farmer and his work in Haiti, which is so freshly relevant after the tragedy there.  Because these thinking processes are separate (Tamara says, “I grew in a lot of ways I can’t even explain…”) and because some of the growth is personal, it is easy to dismiss its impact on content and ignore the value of an academic – gut instinct conversation between the “lobes” in the brain. 


We neuroscientists know that the communication between brain areas and between entire regions is limited by connections between nerve cells traveling at a relatively large distance compared to their size and going relatively slowly compared to electricity. So, it makes sense that specialized circuits would struggle some to talk to each other.  Yet this is, in our opinion, the essence of personal growth, of maturity, of settling on a career, of being able to see the big picture or patterns that escape less mature and younger people.  So, how do we design higher education, after we get them to allow such experiences, so that students can get the most out of them, encouraging the reflection that is needed?  And how do we do this especially where it is needed most, in populations and groups that are either not sure they can do it (master a field) or may not even know what it is.  Talk to us.  We will respond.

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4 Responses to “Inspiration is key to students from underrepresented groups”

  1. Miss. Brown says:

    I would have a look at Pine Manor College’s Center for Center for Inclusive Leadership and Social Responsibility (ilsr) to see some of the work they are doing with students, it seems right on track with your research, it might also be a good idea to ask the director about the outcomes some of the students have had.

  2. Jim Stellar says:

    Miss Brown,
    Thank you. I did have a fast look and I recommend our blog readers check it out. There are many such programs that have a lot to teach the rest of us, especially when they connect up with something into which higher education can project academic content. To me, leadership is such a possibility.

  3. jessica says:

    Tamara, I remember driving my then high school cousins from NY to Boston for the Dr. Ben Carson event. I remember seeing you deliver the introduction/welcoming speech and I also remember how proud of you I was and still am. I am a strong advocate of higher education and doing some form of work/study/volunteer abroad. The title of this post pretty much answers your proposed questions regarding designing a structured program that would help those from underrepresented groups; that is INSPIRATION. Tamara mentioned that Dr. Ben Carson was one of her childhood role models, as he is also mine, and the fact that we had the opportunity to hear his story and walk through the journey of his life to where he is now, provided a driving force in my life to aim high and actually make something of my life. I can honestly say that seeing him in person INSPIRED me to finally take that leap into applying for medical school after being told by so many people that I should just stick to something “easy”, rather than sticking to something that I am passionate about. My point here is that in order to provide that inspiration to underrepresented groups, it is important for students like me who may have been a part of that underrepresented population, to get up and actually INSPIRE. The older generations of students who were privileged to experience studying abroad or accomplishing higher education, should take on the responsibility to mentor those younger generation of students who are unaware of the countless possibilities and opportunities that are available regardless of what level of representation their population presents. A lot of students are just unaware of the possibilities. Some may be intimidated because society has lowered their self esteem so much so that they do not believe that higher education is for them. In cases like these, we have the DUTY as “upper classmen” to INSIRE! Starting with communication, mentoring, BELIEVING in the potential these students have in actually obtaining higher education. From there, the possibilities of success will endless!

  4. Tamara says:

    Thank you Ms. Brown and Jessica for commenting. It’s so sad how I’ve become so enveloped in the day to day stressors of my “work” life that I’d forgotten how pivotal those experiences were for me and the pact that I made with myself to continue to elevate young people as I move forward with my career. It has taken this blog and Jim to help me realize and remember what’s most important. I hope those of you who continue to read these blog entries are inspired just the same and gain some new information from everyone’s stories.

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