Wednesday, November 9th was a strange day. As I passed a tree on my way to class that morning, I paused. It was a tree I’d seen every day for over a year, yet that morning it seemed different. The result of the night before had shaken my core and forced me to question even the smallest truths I knew to be true. I am an immigrant, a person of color, and have lived in America for 22 of the 24 years I’ve been alive. I’ve been a citizen for almost a decade now. But Wednesday morning, as I stared at that familiar tree, I felt suddenly unwelcome in the place I call home.
Election night was a roller coaster of emotions. I flashed back to every moment in my life where I felt judged by the color of my skin. I thought about being teased over my lunches in elementary school, snide remarks overheard on the streets, and being pulled aside for further screening in security lines as my mind raced to make sense of the night’s proceedings. But in that moment, there was no sense to be made. With every fiber of my being, I felt as though my very existence had been judged and then rejected outright. I found myself at my friends’ doorstep in a complete meltdown. I felt the tears streaming down my cheeks, the knot tying ever tighter in my stomach, my legs that threatened to give way every moment I stood and my chest pounding as I trapped every scream I wanted to let out.
Words hurt. And the words that have been spoken this year have left me scared. They have left me feeling vulnerable. But more than anything, they have left me feeling devalued and dehumanized.
So here I was, Wednesday morning, unable to focus, unable to concentrate, and unable to grip reality. I sat with a friend in the library as he told me that his parents were afraid to go to their Mosque on Friday. I had no words of reassurance for him. All I could do was be with him and let him know that he wasn’t alone.
In the midst of this chaos, I turned to the place where I didn’t feel alone. I turned to the incredible privilege of being in medical school and sharing that experience with over 100 truly special classmates.
The diversity in our class is inspiring. Almost two-thirds of my classmates are female and three-quarters of us identity as members of a minority. Our diverse student body promotes culturally competent care, partakes in a variety of holidays and religious events and shares the flavors of their unique cuisines with all. I am now more thankful than ever for being a part of this bastion of inclusion. This is what has kept me together these past few weeks. As a class we have grieved. We have been disappointed. We have faced a bitter irony that couldn’t be more apparent. Here we were, giving so much passion and energy to someday heal a country that had just hurt us all.
Wednesday morning was cathartic. No one had to say a word. We cried, we hugged, and we lifted each other up. We were used to commiserating together over the typical struggles of medical school, but this time it was different. This time we were truly healing each other’s souls. We told each other we belonged, that we were wanted, and that we would keep each other safe.
Medical students are creatures of action. We are hardwired to find tasks that need to be done and to finish them with ruthless dedication and excellence. For better or for worse, it is likely the reason we ended up where we are today. Thus, to see a group so rooted in action be moved to a state of powerlessness therefore was especially sobering. As we slowly recovered from the gut punch, however, everyone’s minds turned to what actions we could take. As tough as it was to think about school and exams, we recognized that we had a responsibility because of our positions as medical students.
One of my classmates asked a faculty member what can we do to change things. How can we have an impact? Her response was “get your degree.” She is completely right. We have been handed an enormous opportunity. We have the option to let this event break us and send us down a spiral from which we may not recover. Or we can stand up and recognize that we have the chance to be leaders and to serve our communities. To speak for those too scared and vulnerable to speak to themselves. And to work to heal them. Most importantly, we can use this occasion to remind ourselves just why we entered medicine in the first place.
I work in a free clinic that serves a number of immigrants from Asia, the Indian Subcontinent and the Middle East. I have seen firsthand the impact this year’s events has had on my ability to provide quality care. I’ve had patients ask me if our clinic would close down depending on the outcome of the election. My classmates have seen patients whose depression and anxiety is rooted in the Islamaphobic hate speech they have encountered. I have met clinic volunteers who are afraid of speaking their native language in public. Recently, our clinic encountered a different message. People have called our clinic to say that our patients don’t deserve the care we provide. But this just means we work harder. That we continue to provide support and care to those who come to us. We must stop feeling powerless and understand the role we can play in the future and beyond.
I am not completely there just yet. I am still processing. But I know this moment will be a call to action. With Step 1 looming and the burden of academic burnout weighing me down, this shall be a moment of clarity and rejuvenation. I know my work is now more important than ever before and the stakes are too high. I do not shirk this responsibility, rather I embrace it, taking solace in the strength my classmates offer. I am excited for what the future holds and I will be ready for the work that lies ahead.