Early support goes a long way

Published May 01 2017

While growing up in Prince George’s County in Maryland, I had many peers who aspired to careers in either sports or entertainment. For young black males in my community, these were our stereotypes: We were expected to become professional football players, basketball players or rappers. I played football in high school. For a short time, I too was convinced that I had a future as a professional football player. My peers and I weren’t expected to have other aspirations; that expectation was difficult to overcome without role models or mentors to say otherwise.

I eventually found my aspiration to become a physician-scientist and can attribute much of my development to this point to my two incredible mentors — my mother and my older brother. My mother always shares stories of her trials of coming from Nigeria to the U.S. in the 1980s. She attended Gallaudet University to study mathematics as an undergraduate student and achieved success as a deaf woman despite the doubts of others. She now is a business professor who teaches accounting at the university. She raised my brother and me on her own and instilled strong values in us and inspired us through her commitment to education.

My conversations with my brother, who is a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania, often were centered on science and medicine and their implications for human health. Combined with my innate curiosity about how the human body works, my discussions with my brother ignited my passion for research and medicine, which steered me to pursue my own path in the field. The examples set by my mother and my brother paved the way for me to set high and clear goals and helped me understand that any adversity I faced provided opportunity for growth.

Having my mother and brother as a support system gave me the confidence to challenge the stereotypes. The stereotypes are perpetuated in many avenues throughout a young black man’s development, whether it be through the media or the school system. During my school years, I encountered different types of teachers. Some were encouraging and inspiring, telling me that I was more than just a misbehaving kid. However, others were demeaning of my abilities.

When it came time to matriculate into high school, I applied to a competitive science program at the Eleanor Roosevelt High School. The process required a standardized test and a review of a school transcript. As I was a bit doubtful of my chances, I was elated when I received admission! My confidence was boosted; however, others were skeptical. A teacher told me, “I guess they don’t choose students as selectively as they used to.” Another teacher asked me, “Did you cheat on the exam to get into that program?”

Initially, these comments caused more doubt within myself, causing a feeling of imposter’s syndrome. However, down the line, I viewed this opportunity and others like it as a way to success. Throughout the years, comments like these motivated me to dispel the stereotypes of young black males and prove that students from any background have the capability to succeed.

Austin Maduka (center) devotes a lot of time mentoring and helping underserved teenagers in Baltimore City. PHOTO COURTESY OF AUSTIN MADUKA

During high school, I took advantage of advanced classes and internships in fields like chemistry, physics and biology. Now, as an undergraduate student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, I participate in the Meyerhoff Scholars and MARC U*STAR Programs. Both provide me a larger network of support with mentors and passionate peers who have increased my confidence in my abilities as a scholar, scientist and future physician. With this confidence, I have chosen to serve as a tutor and teaching assistant for courses in chemistry and biology, using my role to encourage students who may lack confidence that they too can succeed.

With strong interests in medicine and science, I also pursued research and clinical experiences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. I have worked with Natasha Zachara, elucidating a novel pathway with implications for cardiovascular diseases. I also have shadowed Anne Murphy, a physician-scientist in the pediatric cardiology clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Interacting with patients as well as doing research allows me to connect my bench work to the community I am serving. These experiences have solidified my choice to pursue the combined M.D.-Ph.D. degree, because I find that working at the interface between medicine and research provides a synergistic enhancement to both careers.

In reflecting on my path, I recognize that my successes are not purely my own. My mother, brother and other mentors have done so much to help me realize my potential. I now have dedicated myself to helping others as I have been helped. I co-founded a UMBC organization called Achievement and Inspiration through Mentorship, known as AIM. The organization’s mission is to create long-term, high-quality mentoring experiences for underserved adolescents in Baltimore City that strengthen their drive to pursue a quality education. We currently are mentoring 7th-grade students at the Commodore John Rodgers School. We organize activities related to mental health, money management and other areas to which these middle-schoolers may not have proper access. Through learning about their interests, we try to help cultivate their passions in science, medicine, mathematics, literature and other subjects. We also serve as coaches, tutoring them in classes and helping them set goals for the week and into the future.

It is crucial to realize that support can change a person’s trajectory in life, especially for people in minority, inner-city communities. I have seen that they may not have this support. Although I had a positive outcome, many like me do not. Whenever possible, be a source of support for others. It may have a bigger impact than you would expect.

Austin Maduka Austin Maduka, a recipient of a Marion B. Sewer Distinguished Scholarship for Undergraduates in 2016, is studying at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.