A few days after being accepted into the school of public health, my wife and I had a discussion on how to pay for it all. After all, grad school is not cheap, and it would definitely be expensive at the world’s #1 school of public health. While being accepted was a dream come true, it was becoming clear that the dream was going to be difficult to attain.
A few weeks before all that, before being accepted, I had a chat with the professor at the school who would eventually become my academic advisor. He asked me how I would finance my studies if I got accepted. I told him that I planned on working at the lab and taking out student loans. There was also the possibility of getting some help from the epidemiology department at the school. In essence, I told him that I would make it work no matter what. I just needed a chance to get in.
He asked me if I had ever heard of the Brown Scholars at the school. I told him that I had not. He sent me some information on it, and I wrote an essay on my interests in addressing public health disparities given my background in being from Mexico and having grown up seeing disparities and their effects on people. But I never gave the application much thought. Heck, I didn’t even know what the scholarship was about.
Fast-forward to tonight. I had a great time tonight having dinner with some of the brightest minds coming up in the world of public health. These are people with some great ideas on how to make the world a better place. The more I talk to all of them, the more I am glad to be in their presence. There is no sense of competition, per se. Rather, there is a sense of inspiration, of seeing what they’re doing or want to do and wanting to do something just a good not to best them but to help their work in saving people’s lives.
Those people in the picture are the Brown Scholars and their mentors, life partners, teachers, and the Browns, Eddie and Sylvia. A few years ago, the Browns decided to collaborate with the school to create a scholarship that would help individuals from diverse backgrounds materialize their public health projects to benefit disadvantaged people. Their willingness to do this was born from the idea that the world’s best public health school was located in one of the most disadvantaged places in the country, if not the world. They wanted to do something about that, so they helped create a scholarship that would pay all the tuition for the “cream of the crop” of public health students at the school. That, and a small stipend to pay some living expenses. All they asked in return was that the work that the Brown Scholars did in public health could be applicable to Baltimore’s problems. That’s it.
Now, rewind to that conversation I had with my wife when we found out that I had been accepted. I sat around the house wondering how I was going to finance this adventure. Thoughts of not even trying and just giving up and being happy with my MPH and my job at the health department flooded my brain. “It was probably not meant to be,” the brain said. Pessimism took over for, like, a minute. But then I gathered myself and jumped online to look at scholarships aimed at Hispanic students in public health. Surely, someone out there could spare me some cash, right?
It was just as I got online that I received an email from the school. The Brown Scholars committee had seen my application and received the supporting letters from a couple of people. I was selected to receive the scholarship…
I hadn’t written about getting the scholarship because I don’t like to “toot my own horn.” Mom always emphasized that I was not to be proud or boast of my achievements because they were not achievements at all. According to her, I was just blessed with certain things, and I should not make a big deal of those things because it might hurt the feelings of the less fortunate.
My mind on that and the scholarship changed tonight. You see, it was not my achievement alone to get the scholarship and get into the school. Likewise, whatever I end up doing between now and getting the degree, and then after that, it is all not going to be just the product of the work that I put into this thing. As I sat at the dinner table tonight and looked around at the other scholars and their spouses and our mentors and even the dean of the school, I realized that we are all a team in this thing we call public health. My achievements have been in great part thanks to the teachings of my parents in the past and the love and support of my wife now. It’s because of the knowledge imparted by my professors and the wisdom of my advisor that I’m going to be a good public health practitioner.
It’s not me doing this alone.
But the biggest reason why I’m going public with this today, well into my second year of school, is because I want any of you reading this to see that it is possible for a poor little boy from the mountains of northern Mexico to become something and land himself a spot among the “cream of the crop” at a very well-renowned academic institution. I am not the exception and I refuse to be exceptional. I want to run toward the sunlight and have all of you come with me, even if we stumble and fall along the way. And I have been blessed to now be amongst a group of public health students who pretty much feel the same way.
The best part is that it doesn’t matter if you get into the best schools or not. The best part is being part of a team of like-minded people who will challenge and help you be better and do better, and do it all not for yourself but for others. That’s not to say you can’t be selfish at times and, say, take a vacation to Korea or something. But know that you are not the only one who wants to step up and be part of something bigger, so don’t act like it. You are not an island. Seek out those people who will help you on the way. And never lose faith in what your heart hungers for, even if the faith dwindles and things seem grim.
All it takes is for your faith to be the size of a mustard seed, I’ve heard.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.