Columns, In Color
Leave a comment

Overcoming Social Identity Threat: A Conversation with Silverberg Aryee

In Color Cover Photo

For my next interview, I had the opportunity to speak with Silverberg Aryee. He is a second-year medical student at Central Michigan University and is considering pediatrics, emergency medicine or general surgery as his future specialty.

Archana Bharadwaj: Tell me about yourself.

Silverberg Aryee: I am originally from Ghana. My family moved from Ghana to Connecticut when I was 17. I completed 11th grade, 12th grade, and college here.

AB: It seems like you have had multiple transition points with the move from Ghana being the biggest one. Can you tell me about your transition from living in Ghana to suddenly living in Connecticut?

SA: In Ghana, the community is actually a community in the sense that people know and talk to each other. It’s always warm. You just walk out and talk to people in the community like a neighbor or take on the responsibility of watching someone’s kid. You relate to the people around you which creates this sense of community. When I came here, I realized that it isn’t the same. You have your own room and don’t really get out that much unless you are mowing the lawn or something.

How did you manage the transition from a place where the boundaries between people were much more flexible to a place where boundaries between people are much more rigid?

SA: It wasn’t that hard because you just learn with time. One thing that I brought with me from Ghana is respect for strangers and their homes. When you meet somebody, you learn quickly how they interact with others. This really helped me with communicating with different groups. Ghanaians are also very hospitable people, which helped with assimilating to my new environment

You mentioned earlier that boundaries create a sense of isolation. How did that isolation affect your experience during your transition from Ghana to the United States?

SA: Moving here, I had to adjust a lot. In Ghana, I used to be able to walk out and just sit by a tree and talk to anyone who passes by. Here, you are going to have a room and a computer or a video game.

Another thing is that I come from a very huge family. I have a lot of people at home that I am always talking to. I had five to six people to talk to and joke around with. So, I didn’t feel as much isolation because of that.

Something that I like about the United States is that there is always something to do. I didn’t feel like I had that much time to do other things anyway. I feel like my new environment also helped me get acquainted with social media and Facebook.

AB: You really created your own communities in your own way, so you never had to miss it really.

SA: Definitely.

With this transition in mind, what were your expectations about the transition you would have to make coming to CMED?

SA: When I applied to CMU, I didn’t know much about Mount Pleasant or Michigan in general. So, I flew in on Thursday morning, and I went out to eat at IHOP. I was talking on the phone, texting people, and had brought my laptop as well. In the two hours there, I did not see a single person of color.

In Hamden, Connecticut, where my family lives, I can move two blocks and see almost every race. But for two hours in a small room in Mount Pleasant, I hadn’t seen a single person of color.

AB: It’s not something you’ve had to think about before.

SA: No, never! Wherever I used to go in Connecticut, I saw people like me or of a different race.

After my brunch, I drove around campus, so I could see what this place was about. For about every 20 to 30 people that appeared to be white, there was one person of color. It was clear that the lack of diversity wasn’t just IHOP, but the whole town of Mount Pleasant.

How did this affect your expectations and fears coming in?

Being an immigrant and living in a more diverse place in Connecticut with a support system largely made up of Black people, I questioned what this experience would be like. Would I be able to interact with these people? Would we have anything in common?

I have had Black friends who are upperclassmen that told me that classmates have said to them that “you are the first Black person I have ever seen in person.” Hearing that, I thought it was going to be a long semester, but I decided to see how things played out. So, coming in, I wasn’t sure if I was going to have a good support system or fit in.

How did your expectations for CMED map onto the reality of being here?

SA: I definitely was not expecting it to be this rural or to lack in diversity as much as it does. I thought that lack of diversity at my interview day was just a reflection of that day and not necessarily the diversity of the school as a whole.

To me, I was open to the opportunity and to learn more about what other people go through. I have always lived in an urban area, so it was a new way for me to learn about different cultures and environments.

AB: From the conversation we have had so far, it seems like a big coping mechanism you use is finding the positive in everything.

SA: It definitely is. I think about it like this. You are already in that situation. Your options are to look for ways to make it better or to find something that will keep you going. Being positive motivates me.

Currently, in our class, you are the only Black man. What does that experience mean to you?

SA: When I got accepted, I was invited to join the Facebook page for the class. I was so happy and thought that my next roommate was probably going to be Black. Looking through the members, I saw that there wasn’t a single Black person. I thought to myself that maybe I missed someone or that it was early in the process, so people might get added on later. Since some people don’t use Facebook, I also thought that might explain things.

Looking through the class on the first day of orientation, I realized that I really was going to be the only Black man here. There is an upside. I get to be unique in a way as the only Black man. I also have Black females in our class as a support system. There is nothing I can do about it. Regardless of whether there is another Black man or not, I am going to come here and study.

What are areas of unique support that you may not be receiving? 

As a minority student in medical school, people think you are not qualified to be here. In my first problem-based learning (PBL) group, where we worked through cases as a team, I felt like they didn’t think I had anything to bring to the table. It’s not that they hated me. I actually think that they felt the opposite about me.

However, people tend to not listen to you because they think you are dumb or are here to meet the diversity quota. People don’t always say things to you directly. Based on interactions, you can feel that you are being treated differently. For example, in our first course, we would break into subgroups sometimes for questions. I was in a group of three and moved my laptop to be closer to the group so we could talk. The other two just started discussing amongst themselves, and I wasn’t included in the conversation. It was like I had nothing to bring to table or any contribution. They did this for all the subgroup questions and at no point tried to include me in the conversation by asking if I had any questions. It really supported my fears that no one thought I deserved to be here.

How did this affect you?

All of this really got to me. I have never been in a position where I questioned whether I belonged here. I went through social identity threat. I thought if they weren’t listening to me, then it must have something to do with me. I began to question myself.

How did you cope with your social identity threat?

It all came down to having a good support system. There are a couple Black faculty members that I talk to. I told them about the way people treat me and how their perceptions of me were  making me doubt myself and believe these false things could be true. Constantly talking and learning how to believe in myself got me through it. My family was also very supportive through this time period. They would always motivate me and encourage me to keep working hard and were always there for me.

It seems like part of your social identity threat was the added pressure of having to represent all Black men. How did you manage that?

SA: In the beginning, I thought about how I had to represent all Black men. It was a lot of added pressure. When I presented information, I really had to present facts correctly because people already thought I didn’t know the material. Otherwise, I risked people dismissing me.

Now, I don’t really care because I am pretty sure they don’t know as well. We are all here to learn. I am going to do what I need to do to learn and do well in school.

AB: Part of coping has been changing your mindset and realizing that other students are in the same boat as you. You can’t control their perceptions but can control how you react.

SA: Yeah, they are students and definitely go through the same things that I do. They read the same books and resources. If I use the same resources, we will all know the same information. We are all going through the same struggle.

What helped you shift your mindset?

SA: One thing I do in PBL is ask questions. I realized that people tend to talk without knowing what they are saying. When you ask probing questions, people don’t actually know the answers. With time, once I switched to the right resources and saw my grades improve, I realized that it was all in my head, and I can do well. I realized that it was just a phase in my process of learning how to become a medical student.

As you prepare to move into rotations, what are your expectations and fears?

SA: I feel like I will enjoy the clinical aspect more than the studying aspect. Going in, I know that people may not think I am qualified. I know I will have to deal with patients not accepting me as their care provider. I have friends who are nurses and when they walk in, they have the patient respond by saying, “That’s the trash.”

AB: Wait, is that because they thought your friend was the janitor?

SA: Yes, because of their color. And they have to respond, “No, I’m sorry Miss, but I am your nurse.”

AB: That’s difficult that students of color are being called janitors but are the ones who are apologizing for their role not matching their patients expectations.

AB: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions today!

SA: You’re welcome.

After this conversation, I am left thinking about ways in which medical schools can create an environment that is more welcoming and safer for students of color. An important part of learning is feeling comfortable enough to make mistakes in order to better identify opportunities for learning and growth. As I think about how we can implement changes, I continue to question: How can we better address stereotypes and misconceptions early on to create a better learning environment for all students? How can all professors, not just those of color, facilitate cases and activities to ensure all voices are respected and heard?

Featured image provided by Archana Bharadwaj.

In Color

In this column, I will explore the unique challenges of training as a provider of color and offer solutions for improving diversity and inclusion in medicine. Through conversations with colleagues of color, including premedical students, medical students in training, and residents, I hope to create a community where we can learn from one another, cultivate allyhood, and find support in our professional journeys.

Archana Bharadwaj Archana Bharadwaj (6 Posts)

Contributing Writer

Central Michigan University College of Medicine

Archana Bharadwaj is a second-year medical student at Central Michigan University College of Medicine in Mount Pleasant, Michigan. In 2013, she earned her Bachelor's of Science with a major in Biopsychology, Cognition, and Neuroscience and a minor in Gender and Health from the University of Michigan. She went on to earn her Master's in Public Health in Health Behavior and Health Education with a specialization in Health Communications from the University of Michigan in 2016. Outside of school, she is an avid foodie with a penchant for traveling. After graduating medical school, Archana would like to a pursue a career in Anesthesiology.

In Color

In this column, I will explore the unique challenges of training as a provider of color and offer solutions for improving diversity and inclusion in medicine. Through conversations with colleagues of color, including premedical students, medical students in training, and residents, I hope to create a community where we can learn from one another, cultivate allyhood, and find support in our professional journeys.