By Erica Houskeeper
Hearing young people share ideas about making positive change gives Kenny Williams and Sha Ali hope for the future.
The Dartmouth Geisel School of Medicine students and Schweitzer Fellows are mentoring students at Lebanon High School and Hartford High School about STEM careers and facilitating conversations about race and equity.
“Sometimes we expect students to be in certain places, but their ability to be introspective, self-aware, and empathetic is so invigorating. It helps reignite my flame,” Williams says. “It’s easy to listen to the news and feel cynical. But then I get into a room with 10 or 15 of these students and hear them talk about the future and being energetic about making a change in the world, and it’s so uplifting.”
The two meet with students at each school regularly and organize events at the medical school to bring all of the students together in one setting. At its core, their work is a continuation of a project at Hartford High School that was developed by two third-year Geisel students to help galvanize Hartford High School students’ interest in STEM.
Williams and Ali decided to take their Schweitzer Fellowship project a step further by also focusing on mentorship, race, and equity. As members of the Dartmouth College Black Caucus, they were given an opportunity to engage with students of color at Lebanon High School.
“The need at Lebanon High School is a bit more focused on having a space to talk about race and what implications it has here in the Upper Valley,” Williams says. “Being men of color and medical students, we are in the middle of these two worlds. We are going into medicine, so we are really passionate about science. Also, we totally understand what it’s like to navigate these spaces as a minority. We know what it’s like when people don’t really understand you or see things through the same lens as you.”
Finding Diversity, Creating Community
Williams, who grew up in Albany, and Ali, who is from Harlem, first met two years ago while being interviewed for admission to medical school at Dartmouth. Both were hoping to find diversity on campus—and when the two started talking, they instantly became friends.
“At somewhat exclusive schools, what happens for candidates likes us—people of color—is that you want diversity on campus and you’re looking for it,” Ali says. “You want there to be pre-existing diversity, and us meeting on interview day increased our odds of coming here to Dartmouth. By meeting each other, we knew there would be someone who could understand where we were coming from.”
After that first encounter, the two stayed in touch and agreed to room together if they were both accepted to Dartmouth. Their initial meeting was also the spark that led to their Schweitzer Fellowship project.
“What makes Schweitzer awesome is being able to pick a project that’s at the core of who you are—and STEM, mentorship, and addressing race and equity are what we’re about,” Williams said. “Mentorship and exposure to STEM are still at the heart of this project, but at the same time we’re also creating a space for students who are ready to have tough, critical conversations about race and start to build out some concepts.”
Examples of their work include talking to students from both high schools about medicine and the anatomy of equity. At the medical school, they’ll teach students about how to suture, how to put on a cast, how to take blood pressure or how to use an ultrasound machine. They’ll talk how body systems—such as the lungs and heart—are complex but interconnected.
“When talking about the anatomy of equity, we use that same theme, that equity is complex but also interconnected,” Ali says. “For example, where we live dictates the kind of food that’s available to us, and the food we eat is connected to our health.”
Advocacy and Giving Back
At Lebanon High School, Williams and Ali helped students take the lead in educating their school community during Black History Month by sharing facts about people of color who have contributed to this country.
“It wasn’t necessarily about Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks or Malcolm X,” Ali says. “The students often feel like it’s the same story being told during Black History Month. So they shared information about people like Mary McLeod Bethune of Fred Hampton—people of color that the average person hasn’t heard of.”
Both Williams and Ali have previous experience working with youth. Williams taught middle school after college and Ali worked as a community health educator. The two strongly believe that high school is a critical time for students to be exposed to things that will guide the course of their lives.
“One of those things is creating the force of advocacy in them. It’s about understanding what it means to be an advocate for someone else, and understanding this idea that it’s not about where you start. You can get to anywhere and you can do anything you want to do,” Ali says. “You might not have started off on the firmest ground, but you get anywhere you want. Use us as an example. I’m from Harlem and Kenny is from Albany. We’re men of color, and the disparities we have faced haven’t stopped us from going to medical school and wanting to go back to our communities and give back.”
William and Ali plan to stay involved with the schools after their fellowship to continue mentoring students.
“We’re starting some critical conversations, and we’re helping students have additional vernacular and additional tools to address these things and become advocates. By empowering them, they can feel good in having conversations in that space,” Williams says. “And as much as we have given to the program, I think it’s reciprocated ten-fold in feeling like we can step into this space where humanity is back to being the centerpiece of everything.”