For LaShyra T. Nolen, it was never about being the first black woman president of the Harvard Medical School Student Council. It was about making sure that she wouldn’t be the last.
The woman standing outside Vanderbilt Hall at Harvard Medical School is recognizable: she recently graced the online pages of Teen Vogue and The Lily in a white doctor’s coat. Here, though, in a red sweater and black booties, Nolen exudes a stylish, put-together, casual air. Takeout pad thai in one hand and a Pellegrino in the other, she’s just come from an exam. “You know that feeling when you finish a big exam, and then everything else you have to do just hits you?” she asks. “Yeah, that’s where I’m at right now.”
Still, Nolen is all smiles and warmth; her magnetic energy suggests her ability to lead.
This year, Nolen has taken an ethos of advocacy to the Medical School’s student council as the first black woman president. However, the work doesn’t stop at representation alone. “I want to use this platform and this opportunity to make meaningful connections, and really bring the outside community near HMS into its walls,” she says.
A quick look at her presidency thus far demonstrates how she has fulfilled these goals in tangible, innovative ways. Usually, the student council uses its funds to throw a Halloween party. This year, it instead organized an event for students at nearby Mission Grammar School, inviting them onto campus to trick-or-treat and learn more about careers in medicine.
“You could tell that they were just happy to be on this campus and to spend time with us,” Nolen says. “Because even though it’s a two minute walk away, the Medical School building is very intimidating. Even though it’s accessible to everyone, it doesn’t look that way.”
Not only have Nolen’s initiatives aimed to bolster the community’s engagement with the Medical School, they’ve also pushed its students to become more engaged with the world around them. For example, the council paid for students’ Ubers to a Cambridge DACA rally in November. “When you look at photos from that DACA rally, you could just see a flood of white coats,” Nolen says. “There were over 50 students who ended up going.”
Despite her extensive involvement in student affairs, Nolen never imagined herself choosing to attend an institution like Harvard. She wanted a place with diversity comparable to that of her hometown of Los Angeles, Calif. But, after a mere one-and-a-half semesters at the Medical School, she already feels at home. “Even though I don’t necessarily see people that look like me all the time, I still feel like my HMS community and my class are some of the most beautiful, most supportive, most amazing people ever,” she says.
Nolen recounts how, a month ago, the Medical School’s Student National Medical Association — like “the Black Students Union for medical schools” — went on a retreat to Rhode Island. “We wrote a letter to blackness,” she says. “It was this audio letter, where everybody went around and recorded it so we could save that memory for ourselves. It was just so beautiful to be in this safe space where we all were having similar experiences, but we were going through those experiences in isolation.”
This strong sense of community seems to define Nolen’s experience as a student at Harvard. But while she has nothing critical to say about the student body, she does take issue with the institution of medicine as a whole. “People love to talk about implicit bias. But what no one wants to talk about is the structural racism that is ingrained in the medical system and institution,” she explains. “Because literally, the reason why medical schools were built in certain spaces was because they were next to cemeteries that buried black people, so that they could use them as cadavers for their anatomy labs.”
For Nolen, such phenomena cannot simply be relegated to the past or treated as a failure of medicine that has since been rectified. “All of these different instances in history have caused the bias that we’ve experienced, because we’ve learned to see black people as lesser than, and to feel like their pain doesn’t exist,” she clarifies. She cites the childbirth mortality rate — three to four times greater for black women than for white women — and the still-prevalent conception of black people’s heightened tolerance for pain.
As for the Medical School itself, Nolen thinks that its classes begin the necessary conversations about medical disparities, but there’s more to be done. “We’re still just scratching the surface. In cardiology textbooks, they’ll drop that black people are more likely to die from something than other populations,” she says. “Then it moves on and I’m like, ‘Wait, what?’ When you constantly see this in your curriculum, you can start to internalize it, and see these people as inherently damaged.”
Nolen explains that even more than medical institutions, it's “society that’s damaged. And individuals are manifestations of those issues.” Consequently, Nolen’s drive to go into medicine is largely in order to attend to the inequalities that both constitute this field and are caused by it. While her passion for medicine dates back to a fateful third-grade science fair, she only realized that she needed to become a physician when she took a class about health and homelesness. The class required her to stay in Skid Row, a neighborhood in Los Angeles that has one of the highest stable populations of homeless people in the United States, for four days, sleeping outside and in parking garages and shelters.
“I always knew that I had the privilege of returning back to my warm shower, my warm bed at the end of the day. That class helped me understand that there’s so many inequities in our society,” Nolen recalls. “I felt like through being in medicine, I could help those individuals going through those challenges, and tackle those societal issues.”
Wearing a silver necklace that reads “Feminist” on one side and “Boss” on the other, Nolen seems to be on her way to doing so — both as a future doctor, and now as student council president of the Medical School. But, even with all that she’s accomplished, and amidst “all the media attention from being the first black woman president,” she wants to bring attention to those who came before her.
“We found out that forty years ago, there was a black woman who was the chair of her class. And beyond her, there was also a black woman who was vice president,” she says. “So I wanted to use this space to bring value to the contributions that these women have brought to the Harvard community, and how they really set the path for me to be here today.”
— Magazine writer Elyse Pham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.