Ebony Onianwa, Class of 2021

In celebration of Black History Month, this month’s narratives are dedicated  to highlighting the voices of students who identify as black. Each story is unique, intimate, and powerful. Readers, please come open-minded and ready to engage with the following stories. More importantly, be ready to interface with an intimate space and allow yourself to step inside someone else’s life. The following is the narrative of Ebony Onianwa, a second-year medical student at KUMC. Enjoy.

Note: The third interview question is credited to the NYT article “The 36 Questions that Lead to Love.” The interview has been condensed for length and clarity.

Can you give me a one minute rundown of your life?

So the first thing I thought of was my Nigerian origin. My parents are Nigerian but I’m American born. I was born in Wichita, Kansas and grew up there. My mom works in healthcare. My dad is retired now. I went to a very heavily black, Catholic school for elementary and middle school. Then I went to a very white, like 95% white, Catholic school for high school. So those experiences really shaped my view on the world. I went to KU for undergrad so I moved  to Lawrence and realized I wanted to do medicine for a while. I thought I maybe wouldn’t get into med schools so I applied to one school: KU and that’s it. And then I got in and I was like, “Oh, no, I thought I was gonna do a gap year. Crap!” Then I started [medical school]. I’ve had some ups and downs from school: struggled, have succeeded, have had a lot of mental health issues back and forth. But I’m getting better at the moment. Right now, I’m just learning to love life, appreciate life. I want to be a psychiatrist, hopefully, to help other people who have had struggles similar to mine.

If you could choose only one word to describe yourself, what word would it be?  

Empathetic. Actually, I recently did a Strengthsfinder for a SER week. I think my number one was empathy. I think that really describes me. I put myself in other people’s shoes so much that it can be in hinderance sometimes. But also, it’s been a good strength because I can, most of the time, understand what someone else can be going through, even if someone’s experience is really different from mine. Trying to make sure that you understand that not everyone’s worldview is yours and that helps bring people together.

Given the choice of anyone in the world, dead or alive, who would you want as a dinner guest?

I was going to say some historical figure, but now I think it would be my mom’s mom — my grandma. She passed away when I was 11 so I didn’t really get to know her. She also didn’t speak English very well. So there was also a big language barrier. I also didn’t speak my parents’ language so I never really got to know her. Thinking back to my childhood, my parents both survived a civil war. My mom’s house was burnt down and my dad had to fight as a soldier. He couldn’t go to school for a few years. I always wondered, Why they are the way they are? And I have a feeling the war has a lot to do with it.  My grandma lived towards the end of Nigeria’s colonization and lived as a single mother because her husband died. She cared for several kids during the Civil War. What would that have been like? I would love to learn more about her life. It’s frustrating especially because a lot of my mom’s family pictures got lost when her house was burnt so a lot of history is lost.

What is your favorite hobby?

Baking and cooking.

What’s your favorite dish to make?

I recently got a pasta roller. I’m making a lot of homemade pasta. I really like making carbonara with fresh noodles and I really like baking cookies. I recently got into cake making. I also really love to bake bread. Kneading bread is so therapeutic. It’s so beautiful to see that something that came from flour, water, and yeast becomes something you can eat and share with people.

What is a topic or subject that you really care about?

Mental health, for sure. It’s something that, especially coming from a Nigerian background — it’s not necessarily stigmatized, I mean, kind of. When I told both my parents I was going to therapy, they made fun of me. [Mental health] is something that a lot of people are struggling with, especially as med students, but are afraid to talk to people about because you don’t want to be seen as weak. In this competitive environment, as soon as you have a weak point, people think “Oh, they’re going to jump on my weak points” and “Oh, they’re going to make fun of me.” “Oh, if I get an 84 on a test instead of a 94 then I’m the worst.” It’s a whole downward spiral of thoughts. I wish all of us could be more open about our struggles and shortcomings because that doesn’t make you who you are, as long as you’re trying to work on them and improve yourself. That’s really the important part.

And the fact that we need more people who are mental health professionals, and so many issues in our country, from homelessness to suicide, so many issues tie back to mental health. We have a national conversation about mental health, kind of. But what I really wish that we would put more efforts into more research for medications and alternative therapies and more government dollars towards fixing the [lack of resources].

Did you always want to become a doctor?

The more I reflect, the more I feel like the idea of being a doctor was planted into my head. My mom was a nurse. I remember I was five and sitting in the car with her. We were driving. I was like, “Mom, I want to become a nurse.” And my mom was like, “No, you should be a doctor.” And I was like, “Okay, whatever.” So I accepted it and I never thought about anything else. I briefly thought about being a chef for two seconds. That obviously didn’t happen. I think I really didn’t honestly understand or seriously realize what being a doctor was until the first year of med school was over. So it was a little too late, but I’m still happy about it!

I feel like I had the idealized idea of what medicine was like and I didn’t really understand the sacrifice that goes into [medicine], the struggles of learning medicine, and the struggles of being in a field where I feel so different from my peers. I don’t come to school a lot because I feel like I don’t fit in here very well. My background is so different from other people. Obviously you can relate to people on different levels, but I just can’t relate to them on a background level. So it’s just the struggle of is medicine really my place? Do I really like how emphasis is placed on money and prestige? I don’t know. So, yes and no.

What’s keeping you in medicine?

Just the fact that I found something that I’m so passionate about, that I can use my career to advocate for other people because I feel like there’s not many fields where you have as much position of power, ability and education to be able to affect change. For example, being a social worker is great, but I feel like I couldn’t do as much for the people I care about if I were a social worker. You can do something on a small scale, but being an MD can help you get to a level of changing on a big scale too. So that’s what’s keeping me in [medicine].

In terms of your classmates, I definitely relate to your feeling of disconnect on a background level. I can relate as a minority and as someone not from the same background as others in the class.

If I could have all the M1s through M4s just tell everyone, “No, I don’t think we can’t relate because you’re white or from Johnson County,” because obviously we can relate. But when I’m in small group, I feel uncomfortable. I feel like I can’t speak my mind without the ability of being labeled,( even though my small group is super nice and supportive). When I tell my family and friends that my coach and group facilitators say, “You’re so quiet,” [my family and friends] are like, “What?” I’m not a quiet person, but I am a quiet person in an environment where I can be stereotyped and I don’t want that to be that way. So I can’t really speak my mind openly or honestly. I also have the fear of that stigma — because everyone in the back of your head, no matter how much I want to say people aren’t thinking about it — as a black person in medical school, people automatically are going to think I’m not as smart than everyone else. I can’t act like that’s not a thought in the back of people’s heads. When I speak and get something wrong, that stereotype gets enforced. So I’m very careful of making sure I speak when I know I’m right, instead of being able to think out loud like other people because if I speak out load and if I’m wrong, people are thinking, “Oh, maybe she shouldn’t have gotten [in] here anyway.” I know people aren’t consciously doing that, but the fear is there.

What are your future hopes in medicine?

My big future, big long term goal — my fiance is an engineer and he’s also really passionate about getting minorities into  STEM fields — so my big goal is to start a foundation to get more minorities in the STEM fields. My small goal is to be more involved in psychiatry research and hopefully — this is funny because “small goal” — find new drugs and new alternative therapies to help people with mental illness and hopefully get some policy level changes, like more states on board with funding. It’s great that KU is building a new mental health hospital or inpatient unit, but how long did that take? It’s great that it’s happening now, but more places should be doing that as well, especially since there is such a need. And hopefully also coming back to KU to teach and be on faculty.

Do you identify as black?


What does being black mean to you?

I think being black to me means when I’m walking down the street, and I see another black person, there’s that instant connection of I may not have all the same struggles as you, but we still have the same connection that’s otherworldly. I don’t know what it is, but just that understanding of I see your pain, you see my pain.

I was actually talking to my fiancé last night and his last name is a McFarlane but he’s black. Obviously that’s not his native last name or family’s name. I have my family’s name. I did 23andMe. My family goes back hundreds and hundreds of years to Nigeria, Ghana, and apparently the Congo. My whole ancestral roots are in Africa. I have my last name. I have my middle name. My parents speak their language. But for black Americans, that same shared struggle and pain of having their ancestry ripped from them; having their language taken from them; having their children and spouses taken from them and distributed across the country as cattle, basically is something histories and generations of trauma that nobody else can really understand, even on the African side, having brothers and sisters leaving you; having museums where people were taken on slave ships.

That common understanding of the slave trade, which happened all over the world, is not necessarily what being black means to me, but that shared experience of pain, suffering but also overcoming it is what being black means to me. That’s why I really like Black History Month. People think, “Why do you need Black History Month? Black people aren’t special.” Well fine, nobody is special, but that overcoming of constantly being beaten down and told you’re nothing, and overcoming that over and over and over again is amazing.

How has your black identity shaped your life experience?

It has been a struggle. I’ve never known exactly where I fit in and I still don’t really feel know where I fit in. I’ve always been like an outsider. Even within the Nigerian community, I feel like I’m too Americanized. Then within the black community, I feel like I’m too Nigerian. In high school, I hung out with a lot of people who were immigrants, like my best friends. One was born in the Philippines. One was born in America, but her parents are from Mexico. So a lot of my friends were from families of immigrants, but I also felt a disconnect from them, too, because I couldn’t speak my home language. My friend would speak Tagalog with her parents and my other friend would speak to her mom in Spanish. I couldn’t’ do that. So there’s always the feeling of I don’t know where I fit in.

But in terms of black identity, it’s always a feeling of having to perform, to  “code switch”, always having to be “on” and understanding that you’re being observed and judged. Obviously, you’re always being observed and judged as a person in general, but being a black person, I can’t do certain things. I feel like I can’t relax ever. I’m always stressed out about how people are perceiving me, especially in an environment like med school where there’s always a behind the scenes stigma of minorities being “let into” medicine, more or less. I feel like I can never just be myself because I’m being observed as a black human first and not as Ebony first. I feel like a lot of like white people can’t relate to that. I can’t say what other people can or cannot relate to, but I really feel like a white person isn’t necessarily going to think, “Oh, I’m white. This is how the whole world is perceiving me.” I always think, no matter where I go, Oh, I’m black. Let me make sure if I go into a store, that I buy something so I’m not accused of going in and browsing and stealing. Let me make sure that I stand up straight and smile at everybody so I don’t look intimidating and threatening. It’s those constant thoughts all day. I’m tired everyday when I go home, which is why I like sitting at home. Being around the world, it’s like “Ugh, God, I have to think about myself all the time.” It’s exhausting.

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