LaShyra Nolen applied to 16 medical schools, interviewed at 12, and ended up at a place that wasn’t even on her radar when she started as a pre-med student: Harvard.
The 24-year old was elected class president of her first-year medical class in August, the first black woman to do so at Harvard. Each class has a president but the leader of the first years becomes the student body president because older classes have a bigger workload.
For Nolen, it’s a big change from Los Angeles, where she was born. She grew up in Compton, Calif., driving down Sepulveda Boulevard listening to Banda music and Dr. Dre, and then moving inland to Rancho Cucamonga. In college at Loyola Marymount University she also served as class president — the first black woman to do so decades.
Nolen grew up admiring the women in her family. As a young child, she lived with her mother who worked at McDonald’s and Pizza Hut, a young single mom who acted as the “shock pad,” absorbing many of life’s difficulties for her daughter. She also grew up being close with her grandmother and aunt.
After medical school, she said she plans on getting a degree in public policy and possibly exploring politics on the local level. On Friday, The Lily caught up with Nolen after a lung cancer clinic.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Lily: Congratulations! What does it mean to be the student body president at Harvard Medical School?
Nolen: Typically when you think of student body president it’s the person who does all the social stuff. This year we have done the social things and the parties and stuff like that, but I really tried to use our funds intentionally.
So, for example, usually during Halloween we’ll have a class party. But instead of having a class party we actually put those funds toward having an event on campus for youth at a local elementary school so that they can come onto campus.
Most of these kids are underrepresented in medicine, underserved, low-income and they probably never stepped foot on Harvard campus even though the school is two minutes away because it’s just such a opulent building. You have the marble walls and it just kind of looks inaccessible to a lot of people that come from backgrounds like mine.
It was just so awesome to just expose them to a career in medicine in a way that was accessible and fun. We all just hung out and did a little mentorship.
The second project I’m really excited about is kind of an extension of what Princeton did. They have these life-size portraits of the blue-collar workers on their campus. It was this idea of highlighting the individuals who make our community whole.
When you walk through Ivy League institutions, you see these opulent gold-framed photos of older white men and it doesn’t really feel welcoming to the people that work at the institution and also for the students that don’t necessarily identify with individuals in those in those portraits.
We're doing this photo portrait project — we're taking photos and getting stories of the different security guards, cafeteria workers and basically the people that bring us joy because we see these people every day. They clean our dorms, they greet us every morning as we walk into class, they know everything about us, they know everything about the school.
They really are the compass of Harvard Medical School and this is something that we're doing to celebrate them. That's going to be a project in collaboration with the dean's office and that's something that, sure, a student would be able to do, but in my role as student body president, I really have extra accessibility to make these types of things happen and really elevate the voices of those who typically aren’t represented at a place like Harvard Medical School.
The Lily: What are some setbacks you’ve had?
Nolen: Just being pre-med in general is hard. Just being a black woman going up in American society. I think for the most part my mom really had my back growing up, so even when we did struggle I didn’t feel it as much because she kind of was like the shock pad that took it.
Academically when I got to undergrad, it was this huge transition for me because suddenly I was entering this territory that no one in my family was familiar with, right? Sure, my mom got her bachelor’s degree but I was the first person to pursue any career in science. I don’t have any nurses in my immediate family. I never really talked to anyone who was involved in the sciences.
So I remember taking biology and chemistry classes at the same time and I was like, “What?! This is a crazy amount of work! We're taking these labs and I've never had done any work in a chemistry lab before.” My peers were saying, “I shadowed my dad over the summer.”
When you're applying for medical school you have to have these shadowing hours and if you don't have access to these positions, how do you get shadowing hours right if you're the first person in your family to go into the sciences? I had to be very proactive. Compton made me scrappy because I was always looking for resources because I know that they're not just going to be handed to me.
I shadowed black doctors for a whole month in the Inland Empire. It was absolutely life-changing because up until that point in my life I had never seen a black doctor.
The Lily: You took the SAT three times. You said you failed your first chemistry exam. How did you get from there to Harvard Medical School?
Nolen: I knew who I was. And when I say that I mean I knew that I was smart. And the way that I was smart was that I work really hard.
I’m not the kind of person who can look at a textbook and through osmosis, it’s just in my head. I would look at it, I’d talk to myself in the mirror, I’d talk to my friend about it, I’d go into office hours about it. If you talk to any of my professors from undergrad, I was in office hours every single week. If I didn’t understand something I made sure I was getting help.
Beyond that I made sure that I invested in my personal growth. For example, my sophomore year I was a senator for our student council and I worked my way up to becoming president by my senior year — and it'd been like 30 years since they had a black female president at Loyola Marymount University so that was like a huge deal.
In everything I did, it was always related to this commitment to equity and social justice. Even in my role at LMU, I was trying to find a way to make sure that we built a pipeline for other students who looked like me, or who felt underrepresented in student government to find their way to that kind of position.
The Lily: If you weren’t at Harvard, where do you think you’d be?
Nolen: I didn’t think I would feel comfortable in a place like Harvard Medical School but it couldn’t be more than the opposite. I really do feel like this is a special place and I don’t think there’s any other place I’d rather be.