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 Kai Simmons, 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?
I’m from California. I was born in California and moved around a lot. One of the significant and unique things about my life is that I never actually went to the same school for more than a year as a result of moving around so much. I moved to Kansas before finishing my sophomore year of high school and that was the first time I had spent more than one year at the same school. It was different. We had lived in the Bay Area before moving to Kansas and we moved to Fort Scott, Kansas. I went from living in a city of a population of 800,000 people to 8,000 people. So it was a bit of a culture shock. That’s how I ultimately ended up in Kansas. I went to KU because by the time I finished high school, I was a Kansas resident and in-state tuition is relatively cheap out here. I also wanted to maintain my resident status for medical school. That’s pretty much my life from birth until now.
If you could choose only one word to describe yourself, what word would it be and why?
I would say tenacious because I think it’s the most succinct way to describe my personality. I’m a driven person; I don’t give up very easily. I’m very optimistic. When the going gets tough, I try to pump myself up and keep going because I know, eventually, it’ll pay off. I think [being in] medical school is a great example of perseverance. I think the word tenacious sums up [my personality] quite nicely.
Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
Elon Musk, hands down. I think he’s probably the greatest thinker of our time period. Every time I see him doing something or speaking, even though he might not be the most eloquent, I’m always extremely inspired. Everything that he said would do, even though people say, “This is impossible, it’s not going to happen. Things don’t work like that,” he seems to not be affected by those things. He goes out and pursues certain things anyway. He changes the world in such a graceful way. At the same time, he is still able to remain human. He still seems extremely relatable. He’s doing a lot of things that will push society forward and I think that’s amazing.
What is your favorite hobby?
I like to exercise a lot. I’ve been exercising for a long time. Recently, I found that [exercising] gets monotonous. So how can I make this more fun? How can I make this more applicable to life? I recently got into calisthenics. It’s been a really fun learning experience. I started in December and I’m working on balancing a handstand. My goal is, by the time summer rolls around, to do a complete handstand push up. I think that’s achievable.
What is a topic or subject that you really care about?
I really care about inspiring people. I found out recently that I’m pretty good at it and it’s something that I really, really like to do. People say if you find something that you would do for free, try to build your life around that. I think to myself, There’s nothing I would do for free for free. But this, [inspiring people], I would definitely do this for free. I love talking to people. People come to me, and they ask for advice on certain things. I pride myself on being very optimized with my schedule and lifestyle. People ask me, “How do you do this?”, or “What’s your perspective on this?” And I will be running my mouth for a really long time about what they can do, and I’ll be trying to pump them up: “The only thing that’s standing in your way is you and you can make this happen” type of thing. So something I really care about is inspiring people.
Did you always want to become a doctor?
When I was younger, I really wanted to become an engineer. I used to think I wanted to become a mechanical engineer. I was always playing with Legos and building new things. I used to draw designs of schematics of things that I wanted to invent. I was constantly breaking my toys and trying to put it back together. So that was me as a kid.
I’m not sure what changed, but I started becoming heavily interested in science. My path after that was pretty linear. I had the same major throughout college. I took a couple gap years where I worked in industry. I got a degree in biochemistry so I was able to find jobs in analytical chemistry. It was cool, but it was so standardized. You’re doing the same thing over and over. It becomes extremely repetitive in the first couple of months.
I was applying to medical school at that time and, fortunately, I got in. I remember the exact moment when I got in. It was amazing. I was so happy because at that point, I realized I don’t have to be stuck in this one, singular role. I could actually be interacting with people and helping people, not just in a lab pushing buttons on a machine. I’ve always been interested in STEM and I still have that tactile desire that inspired my engineering interest at first. So I think that [interest] would translate into a career in surgery. That’s what I’m currently interested in.
What surgical specialty are you interested in?
Right now, I’m really interested in facial plastic surgery. That stuff blows my mind. I think about it all the time. I think it’s an excellent field to go into because there are so many opportunities and versatility. I don’t think I’d ever get bored. Certain things that you do can become repetitive after a while, and I’m the type of person who needs to have my interest provoked pretty regularly.
What are your hopes in medicine?
I hope to be able to pursue the opportunities that I want. Looking forward, I want to put myself in a position to have doors opened. I understand that it’s going to take STEP scores, research, blah, blah, blah. That’s my initial hope.
My hope after that is that the field of medicine — 10-15 years from now — is still in a form that allows me to pursue goals of having a business, helping people, but at the same time being able to accommodate my lifestyle. My dream is to have a business, but also to work in a hospital setting because I am interested in reconstruction and repair. I hope to have a dynamic career where I can find myself in multiple roles. I would really like to be in some type of leadership position, whether it’s with a hospital, a different organization, or an organization I create myself.
I would like to inspire young students, but especially young minority students, young black students. At this point in time, there are not a lot of black student physicians. There actually were more black medical students 30 years ago than there are today. So I would really like to mentor kids also.
Do you identify as black?
What does being black mean to you?
When I read this question in your initial email, I really had a hard time thinking of a response. What it means to me is identifying with a larger culture. Black is not an ethnicity, even though a lot of people think of it as one. It’s a social construct. You don’t necessarily have to be strictly African American to identify as black. There are people in the Dominican Republic who have roots from Africa. There are people in the Middle East who identify as black, even though they may not technically be from Africa, but they still identify with the culture. Being black to me means identifying with what is considered black culture. To me, black culture are things like black political issues (social justice), food traditions, black movies, and certain hip hop music. That’s my identity, how I identify; it forms my dialect; it facilitates my interactions with my friends who identify in the same way. That to me is being black.
Beyond that, [being a part of black culture means] being supportive. I’m reading this book called Disintegration and it talks about how there are four different factions within the black community. It ranges throughout the different levels of socioeconomic status, so from the poor to the people who have transcended the odds and are now super rich. To me, black culture means being supportive, being there for people who don’t have the advantages that you have, or don’t have the resources that you have, and showing them this is the way that you can achieve this, or creating opportunities for them, not necessarily giving handouts, but paying it forward and allowing somebody who’s not in that position to get into that place so one day they can do the same thing.
How has your identity as being black shaped your life experience? For example, you’ve lived in various cities, ranging from diverse to not diverse, how has being black affected your experience or vice versa?
I think it’s interesting because I have no other perspective, right? I can make an assumption that I’m a lot more aware of my presence and my skin color versus somebody who doesn’t identify as a minority. If you’re a minority and you walk into the room, and you’re the only minority, you’re aware of that. Then you start to wonder, Do other people notice? How do other people feel about me being here? Even though they might not even be thinking about it, you’re still thinking, What if they are? How does that make them feel? So as far as how has being black shaped my perspective, it is giving me an opportunity to reflect and tell myself that these thoughts are a little unnecessary. You may be the only minority in the room, but that could potentially be to your advantage. It’s not a bad thing to stand out. Your voice actually counts for a little bit more because you’re a representative for an entire group. I’ve tried to, within the last couple of years, use my minority status to my advantage and be an advocate and allow my voice to reflect a broader group of people. I think I’m doing a decent job of representing my culture.