Tue | Jul 7, 2020

Chika Oriuwa - a story of inspiration and determination

Published:Sunday | June 7, 2020 | 12:00 AM
Chicka Oriuwa, University of Toronto.
Chika Stacy Oriuwa speaks during an event celebrating distinguished African Scholars, presented by the African Alumni Association, at University of Toronto’s William Waters Lounge, September 28, 2018.

“As the only black student in my first year of medical school,” recalled Chika Oriuwa, “I found it difficult to confront the inherent isolation and otherness. However, reclaiming my narrative is what enabled me to thrive in this environment.” Oriuwa’s story is a breath of freshness in the stifling world we are living in right now, beyond hatred and oppression, one of hope, love, positivity, and one that inspires.

Chika Stacy Oriuwa, 26, is graduating from University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine and is the first black woman valedictorian.

It is an achievement that comes in an unprecedented time and has given Oriuwa a new perspective on life and the profession that she has chosen – namely, that however glorified your chosen profession is, being human and treating fellow humans with dignity is the core.

“There are so many lessons to be learned from the pandemic,” she said. “One of the main lessons is the understanding that doctors are human.

“Recently, doctors have been portrayed as superheroes or superhumans. In one way it’s honouring, but that can also be a really dangerous road to go down. An important lesson we must remember is to not strip doctors of their humanity. We need to acknowledge that saving lives and witnessing overwhelming suffering can be traumatising to physicians.”

Society, says Oriuwa, needs to recalibrate its thought processes and be aware that doctors, like everyone, cry and become emotional.

“Physicians are still people who feel the same way that anyone else does,” she said.

As Oriuwa, and numerous others, will always remember that being part of the ‘Class of 2020’ was a historic milestone, the world has been forced to move from contactless transactions, to contactless and social-distance living. The post-COVID-19 world will bring about new norms that will define how they embrace what is presented to them and how the world of work and societal norms will shape the way we live.


Let’s get back to Oriuwa’s story. It has been told, and retold recently, and her journey to becoming a doctor, as we said, has been one of inspiration.

She recalls that her love for medicine came at an early age – she had an affinity for newborns when she was three. “ I wanted to hold them, protect them, and nurture them,” Oriuwa said.

She looked up to her uncle, a neonatologist, a physician overseeing the well-being of babies, and decided from an early age that she wanted to become a doctor.

Her mother, she said, is the most important person in her life – her number one fan and cheerleader, and has been a key support system.

“The path to medicine is not easy,” Oriuwa said. “It is so intense, but mom fostered my potential. She helped instil in me a sense of purpose and self-confidence of what my calling was in this life.

“During the low points on the arduous path to and through medicine, she saw in me what I couldn’t see in myself and spoke life into my dreams,” she said.

Her family has been a driving force, helping her to shape her life and career. Oriuwa’s mother is a personal-support worker and her dad is a nurse, first-generation immigrants from Nigeria.

“While they were supportive, their insight into a medical career in Canada was limited. That plays into why there are so few black students in medicine. You really have to look at the social discrepancies and the lack of social capital. Growing up, you don’t have any networks to tap into that can pass on the hidden knowledge of how to prepare,” Oriuwa said.

This reality was stark when she was accepted and enrolled in the medicine programme.

“As the only black student in my first year of medical school, I found it difficult to confront the inherent isolation and otherness,” she said. “However, reclaiming my narrative is what enabled me to thrive in this environment.”

At University of Toronto (U of T), three physicians are her mentors. Dr Lisa Robinson and Dr Onye Nnorom, who Oriuwa describes as two powerful black women in medicine helped shift the culture and make it easier for women like her to thrive in medicine. “When I first started medical school, they took me under their wing,” she said. “They were excellent guides for my advocacy.”

Pier Bryden, a paediatric psychiatrist, is her third mentor, who Oriuwa said is an ally and support system during times of adversity. Bryden also has been instrumental in giving her exposure to psychiatry.

“There can be stigma around psychiatry, and getting closer to Pier has allowed me to unveil that and see the boundless potential of this incredible speciality,” Oriuwa said.

She said that all three are her “absolute guiding lights”.

Oriuwa said that she has assiduously continued to tread on the career path chosen by her and is determined to make a difference in whatever way she can.

“I believe that being a black woman in medicine is a true testament to the ability of people of colour to overcome and surmount adversity,” Oriuwa said. “We stand as representatives in our community to show people we can be in medicine and thrive in that community. I see it as a responsibility to give back to my community and do advocacy work.”

She said she would like to be a psychiatrist and focus on addressing mental-health issues among the black population.

“I want to destigmatise mental illness in the black community. I also want to address the impacts of anti-black racism and police brutality on the wellness of the black community,” Oriuwa said.

Passion for Her Profession

Her passion for her profession and critically understanding that there needs to be a tangible solution to address the lacunae and mend the hurt that exists in the society make Oriuwa a well-rounded person. Oriuwa is marrying the logic of the left brain with the creativity of the right brain – she is a poet, too.

“Being a poet makes me a better doctor,” she said. “Poetry requires a critical examination of the human condition and experience. Being able to synthesise information, in a way you’re drawing on intangible or abstract things and finding relationship through art using metaphors and similes and allegories. It helps me in medicine because we are often called to make sense of things that are abstract. Patients’ stories are often complex, and we have to synthesise them in a way that is logical.”

In addition to poetry, Oriuwa also likes theatre and musicals. In her second year of medicine, she said that she co-wrote Daffodil, a musical which was performed at the Faculty of Medicine, U of T as a part of an annual fundraiser for the Canadian Cancer Society.

If COVID-19 pandemic had not hit, Oriuwa would have performed the spoken word.

Oriuwa is optimistic about the future prospects but would like to, in spite of the limelight that is shining on her, have her feet grounded.

“When we come out of the pandemic, we need to recognise that doctors are individuals with the capacity and skill set to make clinical decisions and save people’s lives. But doctors are also humans, and we should be able to reach out for help if we’re struggling in any way.”

“Reach out and touch somebody’s hand, make this world a better place if you can ...” sang Diana Ross in 1970 ... in 2020 we could not agree more.

- Thank you Marina Jimenez, global media relations strategist, University of Toronto, for facilitating the interview. amitabh.sharma@gleanerjm.com

Dualism/ Code Switch


woman and black

doctor and woman

doctor and black

doctor, black woman


doctor, doctor!

we need a doctor

is there anyone on this plane that can help?


can you be both doctor and black,


they told her step back,

they asked for credentials

what’s at the top of the differential?

physician: unlikely


they did not look like me

they did not speak like me

and yet it only took me three years on this earth,

to realize that doctor is what I was destined to be

it took you 10 seconds to decimate

10 plus years of my training

I do not have my credentials,

but this man’s vitals are waning


they told her step back


how can you be doctor, woman, and black?

I ask myself the same


when they call me by name

I will respond, not Stacy, but Chika

Chika Stacy if you insist,

but you would be remiss if you thought I would divorce myself

from this African bloodline

when I step into this white coat

I am more black than ever


I will remember


the days when they laughed at my features

broad nose, dark skin, and kinks

caused my confidence to shrink

when they asked me

did they make it easier for you to get in here?

juxtaposed against these white walls

the message was clear.


woman, black

prestigious school of medicine

home to the discovery of insulin

my existence in this lineage felt like insolence

managing the dissonance of my identity

enigma at the epicentre of diversity

code switching with urgency

shedding the layers of culture off my tongue

carefully dissecting the vernacular

my speech is the disembodied phantom of my being

that I fail to resuscitate


code blue

in the deep hues of my skin remind me

that this is more like code black

meaning that there is an imminent threat

suspicious object found on hospital grounds

they asked if I felt pangs of regret

being the only black body in a sea of 259 students

they advised me, remain diligent, prudent

the margin of error is insignificant

when you dare be black, woman, doctor

when you dare be opinionated

they will misconstrue your passion for attitude

your conviction for aggression when speaking on oppression


be black but not radical

Shonda said we must work twice as hard to get half as much

so work four times that

think logic, think practical



woman, black, physician in training


my patience is draining

when I instead deviate towards hypotheticals

what should I do when I encounter bigotry in my field,

and their condition is critical?

when do we start to learn how to deal

with internalizing sexism and racism during rounds

when do we learn how to heal

is there even an option?


I was told to proceed with caution

for there was no formal guidance

when navigating the coarse waters of medicine

as black woman

the preceptors were like sirens

on false shore lines of hope

my faith smashing against the rocks when

I was told to independently cope

with the adversity

of being woman, doctor, black


woman and black

doctor and woman

doctor and black

doctor, black woman

doctor… doctor..

we need a doctor

is there anyone on this plane that can help?


can you be both doctor and black,


I quickly say back,

I know of nothing else.

but to become doctor in the face of doubt

to be fearlessly black in a world that begs otherwise

to be woman when my narrative is challenged

and my capabilities called into question

I will stand at the intersection of my identities and boldly proclaim

I am woman

I am black

I am doctor

and I am here.


Chika Stacy Oriuwa