Alicia Adams speech at a dinner honoring the Schuler high school graduation class of 2015

By Schuler Scholar Program 07/23/2015

Alicia Adams, WHS ‘07, Brown University ’11, The Medical College at Rush University ’15 delivered a thoughtful speech at a dinner honoring the Schuler high school graduation class of 2015. Read the speech below in its entirety.

I have been thinking a lot about my high school graduation since I was asked to speak here tonight. I remember lots of little things, like reading Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the places you’ll go!” for the first time and being moved to tears (if you haven’t read it yet, I highly suggest that you do). I remember being thrilled about graduating, making party plans with my friends and daydreaming about how I would decorate my dorm room once I got to college. I remember all of these fun and exciting things, and I do not remember feeling scared. Then I thought a little bit more about my first year in college and all of the things that I wish that someone would’ve told me.

I graduated from Waukegan near the top of my class. I did a lot of community service, always worked hard in school and it always paid off. I assumed college would be the same, except a lot more exciting because I would be with people from all around the world and find new opportunities that I never even knew existed. And it WAS like that! All my friends were from different states and countries and I got involved with organizations that I had never heard of and causes that I cared about. But it was also, at times, incredibly and painfully hard.

My high school was very diverse and when I got to college, I was lost in a sea of white people. That might sound silly to you, and I think most people I expressed that feeling to felt that it was an odd sentiment, but it was truly unnerving to me. It was assumed that I fit in to this major demographic and had shared experiences and culture, but I didn’t fit into any of their boxes. I had never vacationed abroad, I didn’t know how to network, I didn’t come from a long line of doctors and lawyers, I wasn’t at college for “the experience” – I was there because I worked incredibly hard to get to a place where I could build a future for myself and my family, who had sacrificed so much to get me where I was. I didn’t meet a single classmate who understood that and I felt like an outsider.

I kept doing my extracurriculars, and I kept working really hard at school, but this time, I just kept coming up short. I felt like no matter how hard I tried or what things I gave up, I just couldn’t figure it out. I remember calling home in tears and telling my family I was going to drop out of Brown and transfer somewhere closer to home because I didn’t belong here. I remember them crying with me and telling me they were sorry, and not to think they didn’t love me but there was no way they were going to let that happen. My mom wasn’t quite sure how to help me, so she called one of my high school teachers and asked for her advice. She called me too and gave me some tips, but ultimately what it came down to was everyone telling me to ask for help, and that was something I just didn’t know how to do. I had never really NEEDED help before and I had no idea where to get it. Thankfully, when I was choosing my course schedule at the beginning of the year, I took recommendations from an upperclassman about signing up for a small first year seminar in an area I wouldn’t normally consider, so I had at least one professor I felt I could talk to. She helped me to navigate the system a little bit better and got me connected with a Dean who worked with minorities and first generation students. We talked about a lot of things, but most of what it centered on was me and how I was adapting to going from the top of the bottom to being at the bottom of the top, and I will never forget what she said to me once I finally stopped venting. She said, “You know what the biggest difference between you and them is? That they look at your professors as employees and you see yourself as just a student”. I hated her phrasing and still do because I think it is terrible to go through life looking at others in terms of how they benefit you, but she had a point. They were my professors. Their job was giving me an education, and for whatever reason, I wasn’t getting it. So I went to them and I asked for help. They were happy to help me. They didn’t see my questions as a burden. They were committed to my success too, I just had to reach out. We all put in extra time and this may sound obvious and trivial, but things changed after that.

The next 3 years went a lot more smoothly. I got in a groove and I found time to explore things that were important to me. I started doing research on stress and health outcomes in low income mothers, and how social service interventions could change those things. I found out that medicine could be an avenue for me to fight for social equality and make a difference in my community and decided to apply for medical school.   A different dean told me not to bother, because “people like me did not go to medical school”. That was a terrible day, but I did not let it change my mind. Everything took me more effort than it probably did most of my peers, but I got there. And at the end, I didn’t quite make it back to the top, but I found things I was passionate about, that gave me joy and a sense of purpose. And I graduated from Brown with multiple medical school acceptances in hand and a feeling of accomplishment that I had never known before.

I knew medical school would be a different beast academically, but with the rough transition I had to college I figured it wouldn’t be that hard. I was wrong. Medical school was just like college, but worse. The academics were more rigorous, I had less time for friends and family and less time for things I cared about outside of school, despite having a higher demand for different measures of my success and commitment to my career. It was an exhausting road and my study strategies from college didn’t translate well, but the things I learned about myself, asking for help, and believing fully that I deserved my position got me through. I am pleasantly surprised – and a little bit shocked – to say that in 2 days, I will graduate with my medical degree and be heading off to my number one  choice of training program. So with that academic life story, I would like to end with things I wish someone would have told me:

Thank you all so much for giving me the honor of speaking to you tonight. Everyone in this room is incredibly proud of you and we can’t wait to see where you end up. Congratulations, class of 2015!

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