Did you know that since 1978, the number of Black men enrolled in medical school in the U.S. has actually decreased, from 3.1% to 2.9%? It’s a sad state of affairs when it comes to Black male representation in U.S. medical schools, which makes this episode very special. Dekoiya Burton is an MD/MBA fourth year student at UT Austin and Dell Medical School, and is the only Black male in his entire medical school class. Born to teenage parents in Houston, TX, Dekoiya’s story is an unlikely one, and on this episode, he details the obstacles he’s overcome on his journey to becoming a Black doctor.
This episode is great for: pre-med college students, MD hopefuls, those applying to med school, going through the MD process, or anyone who’s had a big goal and had to overcome significant obstacles.
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Dekoiya: There are going to be a lot of people who will tell you you can’t do it, and you can do it. There are a lot of people who were like, “It’s really hard to get in medical school.” Don’t let them deter your dream. Even if it takes you 10 times to apply, all you need is one yes. You can have 10,000 No’s and all you need is one yes.
Priscilla: Welcome to the Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killing it on their career journeys. I’m your host, Priscilla Esquivel Weninger – proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants, and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat each Friday, as we dive into a special guest’s story, and hear all about their challenges, milestones, and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career, or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place! Let’s get started.
Priscilla: Hey, so I have a crazy stat for you. Did you know that in 1978, Black men made up 3.1% of all medical school enrollments? But in 2019-20, that number has actually decreased to 2.9%. That means that in nearly 30 years, we’ve actually moved backwards in terms of Black male representation in med school. As we know, this has nothing to do with innate ability and everything to do with systemic racism and educational opportunity, which is what makes today’s episode so special. My guest today, Dekoiya Burton, is a Black male MD/MBA student at UT Austin. Dekoiya is a Houston native, who was born to teenage parents in a family that struggled financially. On this episode, he talks about the challenges that low income and people of color face in their pursuit to becoming a doctor, the shocking grief that he felt when he realized he was the only Black male in his medical school class, and the strategies that helped him make it through that difficult chapter and emerge into a stronger person.
Priscilla: Okay, everyone, I’m super excited to welcome Dekoiya Burton to today’s podcast. Welcome, Dekoiya.
Dekoiya: Thanks. Thanks for having me, super excited to be here.
Priscilla: Yeah. So today we’re going to hear a little bit about his story and specifically his MD/MBA story. So let’s go ahead and kind of jump in here. I would love to hear a little bit about maybe your own personal background, where is home for you and what was it like growing up where you’re from?
Dekoiya: Yeah. So I am from Houston, Texas, H-town, what have you. My parents had me when they were 14 and 15. And so I was born to teenage parents, which presented a lot of different challenges, I would say. We definitely struggled financially. Definitely have seen my parents grow up and grow into parenting. It’s been interesting because I feel like they’re more like my big brother and my big sister than sometimes my parents. Especially as we got older, I feel like the age gap between us has really gone down. But home for me is Houston. I had a large supportive family. Obviously, my parents were very young raising a child and so I owe a lot of my success to my grandmothers, my aunts, uncles, church community, just like a really broad community that really inspired me to be my best, and really inspired me to do well in school. I think sometimes with teenage parents, people write them off as though their children can’t be much. And I will say my mom, even though she had me young, she was really big on education and going to school, and really big on holding her children to their dreams. So I told her when I was maybe way little, at some point I wanted to be a doctor. And she said, “Okay, I’ll hold you to that.” And here we are all these years later. I’m in my fourth year of medical school and things like that. She didn’t accept anything less than excellent from us and she still doesn’t. And so I really owe a lot of my success to my mom.
Priscilla: Pretty incredible. So she held you to that. So many people have that dream of becoming a doctor, and it’s so cool that you’re actually making it happen now. And in terms of your schooling experiences, were you someone who always tried to take the AP science class? How did that play out for you in school for you growing up?
Dekoiya: I am very lucky because statistics show that young men from my background, my social economic status have to decide that they want to go to medical school at age 10 in order to get there, otherwise they’ll face some significant hurdles. And the reason being is because you’re able to basically get all the way up to calculus in high school. And being able to get all the way up to calculus in high school and things like AP chemistry, because I was able to take some of my science and math classes in middle school, allowed me to be on this fast track and allowed me to see a lot of the same stuff that I saw in high school, especially as a senior, to see it again in college and do really well in those classes. And so as disheartening as that is, I think it’s super important for young especially Black men, women, and children, to have mentors to say, “This kid wants to do this. I’ve identified this kid as someone who can do it, and I’m going to make sure that they’re put in the right bases to accomplish their dream.” So my mom was big on magnet schools. I always went to magnet schools.
Priscilla: I never really made that connection that you just mentioned in terms of getting to take calculus before college and how that would prevent people from being able to perform at a high level with the pre-med courses that you have to take. Another thing that I’ve noticed, which I’m curious what you think is, I feel like a lot of people who I know that go down that track of becoming a doctor, maybe their parents were doctors or someone in their family. I wonder if there’s data out there that shows that if someone in your family is a doctor or your parent is, you’re just so much more likely to go down that path. Have you found that at all, like your classmates?
Dekoiya: I mean, yes. Well, what’s interesting is that medicine, and it’s so sad, because to be a doctor, I’m not going to lie to you, is quite expensive. And we forego a lot of pay in our 20s to become physicians, right? I’m 26 now going on 27, and I’ve only worked for one year. And my salary for that year was $30,000. Whereas some of my colleagues, I have friends who studied other things, who were already making six figures. And so if you are someone who is of low social economic status and don’t really have a lot of support, it’s really hard because you have to forego a lot of opportunity costs and a lot of pay, which you could be earning in order to come out on the other side. And as far as knowing people in medicine, it’s such a hard system. You have to take the MCAT, so you have to know, understand the MCAT and you have to understand how to apply to med school. You have to really understand what is it like to interview. What are people looking for at medical school applicants? And there’s just a whole culture of medicine that all of us have to adjust to. But I think it’s particularly hard for students of low SES because they’re literally learning how to operate in a system that was built for middle, upper middle-class, and wealthy students to thrive in. And so it’s just really complicated. But with that said, I will say I’ve had amazing mentors throughout high school, throughout college, even now in medical school and as I’m applying to residency, mentorship, getting people in your corner to say, “Hey, I see something in you. Hey, let me know how I can help you. Hey, I know this person, I know that person. Let me give you money. Let me just build you up.” I think that is crucial to anybody who wants to become a doctor.
Priscilla: Because it’s such a long road, right?
Priscilla: And you almost need that community and also people supporting you.
Dekoiya: Right, yeah.
Priscilla: You ended up at Boston University for undergrad. What was it like for you entering knowing this was a big goal for you? Did you feel that high pressure competition at the beginning?
Dekoiya: I think we, in our education system, worry about what other people are doing too much. I think we worry about meeting these standards. Yes, you want to do well in your pre-med classes. But for me, I knew that meant building a really good community around myself with people who I could trust and people who would be in the trenches studying on Friday night with me, studying on late nights with me. And I really was lucky enough to find a community at BU of people who also wanted to go to medical school. And the way that I got through that was to study with them and really lean on them. And they also leaned on me and we would just, you’re not in this alone, right. And also asking for help. So if you don’t understand something, going to office hours, right, going and asking questions and raising your hand, and having a discussion with the professor is super important because at the end of the day, you’re paying to be there, make the most of it. And then I also think being willing to take advantage of the university resources, whether that be tutoring, I would do that. And whether that be quizzing yourself with your friends. I don’t know. I think you got to have fun with this because especially something like medicine, it’s so long that if you’re like, “Oh, I’ll just wait until I’m a doctor,” well, it takes a decade essentially to become one. So I’m like, you can’t just say, “I’m just going to power through this for the next 10 years.” You got to really learn how to build some skills that’ll keep you growing because it’s a long road.
Priscilla: Do you think that you also always had a mindset of “I’m going to get through this. I know this is going to happen, and it’s just a matter of time and hard work”? Or did you have moments where you did doubt it?
Dekoiya: Oh, I definitely had moments where I doubted. I’ll never forget. I remember physics, I hated physics, still do to this day. And I remember one day, I was a junior then, I called my dad and I was crying and I said, “Dad, I don’t know.” I was like, “I don’t know if I can do this.” And I said, “I don’t know. I’m so tired.” And I said, “What if I fail, dad? What if I fail?” And my dad, he said, “Well, if you decide you want to do something else, we’ll still support you.” And he was like, “And if you don’t want to do it, that’s okay.” And he was like, “It’s going to be fine, just keep going.” But yeah, oh, I definitely had my moments of real tears, and real frustration, and those moments happen and you just kind of pick yourself up and keep going. You know what I mean? And you lean on your family. Call your dad, call your mom. Call anybody you need to be like, “Hey, I’m struggling with this and I need to hear some good thoughts. I need to hear some positive energy, definitely.” Definitely lean on your community. It’s super important.
Priscilla: So for someone who might be listening, who’s like, “Well, what does it look like to apply to med school?” What did that process look like for you?
Dekoiya: Well, it’s kind of different because there’s two applications you need to fill out. So there’s the AMCAS American Medical College Application Service, and that is a central application process to apply to most medical schools in the US. And, of course, being from Texas, we are Texas, we have our own, and that one’s called TMDSAS. So most people in the US don’t even worry about Texas because they’re not from here. But me, I had to fill out two different applications, one of them from Texas, and then one of them for the rest of the US. You have to write a personal statement. You have to link your MCAT scores, fill out all of this biographical information about yourself. And then what happens is let’s say you apply, you press ‘submit’ and you send your application to all these medical schools, and then they send you back what we call a ‘secondary.’ And a secondary is basically open-ended questions that they ask to get to know you. And I remember I was working a summer camp job, and so I was working 24-hour days and stuff, but I took little breaks and did this. And I would answer those open-ended questions and then send them back. And then if they liked me, they would offer me an interview. And if they didn’t, they would say nothing. And then you would interview the previous year before you matriculate. And basically the interview was just about, they wanted to know who you are. It’s kind of like this who you are, what led you to medicine? What do you see as your strengths? What do you see as some weaknesses? And they just try and get to know you. It’s definitely a very long process. It takes a year to do, but it’s definitely worth it.
Priscilla: Did you pay anyone to help you navigate the admissions process or did you just figure this out on your own? Did BU help you?
Dekoiya: Yeah. So BU has a pre-professional advising office that was super helpful. Actually, they were infamous for crushing people’s dreams, but some kind of way. Okay. I will say this, I’ll say this, there are going to be a lot of people who will tell you you can’t do it, and you can do it. There are a lot of people who are like, “I don’t know, et cetera, et cetera. It’s really hard to get in medical school.” Don’t let them deter your dream. Even if it takes you 10 times to apply, all you need is one yes. You can have 10,000 noes, and all you need is one yes. So I had pre-professional advising at BU, which was super helpful. And then, I don’t know, I did a lot of reading. I’m a very inquisitive person. I’m like, “Oh, how does this work? How do I do this?” And so I would do a lot of just reading and trying to understand the process of how this works. And once you understand what you need to do, it’s just a matter of doing it. I think people sometimes get caught up in that anxiety. “Oh, did I do this right?” I’m like, if you can have someone look it over and have someone look over your part, you definitely should have someone look over your personal statement and stuff.
Priscilla: How bad were the MCATs?
Dekoiya: They definitely require you to be disciplined. I remember the summer before my senior year, I was working part-time and I was studying. So I would do 20 hours of work every week, and then 20 hours of studying. My job from 8:00 to noon, take a break. And then I took a little course, a little MCAT course, which helped me a little bit with Kaplan. You don’t necessarily need one but just something I did. And then I would go to that class from 1:00 PM to 4:00, and then I would take a dinner break from 4:00 to 6:00. And then I would study from 6:00 PM to 10:00 PM, and I would do that. I did that my whole summer, yeah, before your senior year.
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Priscilla: And so you decided to come to UT Dell. What was it like finally being like, “I’m a med student”?
Dekoiya: Shocking, culture shock. I am the only Black man in my class. And so for a long time, I had relied on community and relied on the feeling of belongingness to get me through. And when I got to med school, I felt like I didn’t belong. And I was passing my courses fine and everything, but I became severely depressed and severely anxious. And I’m saying this, not because I want pity but I want people to know that it’s very real. And especially in high achieving students like medical students, and you get to medical school and it’s nothing like what you ever thought it would be. And there’s a lot of expectations of yourself and a lot of expectations of you. Learning how to navigate that in which you’re willing to give up, to me, these expectations and what you’re willing to keep really keep yourself grounded and vitalized. I think, I really struggled with that first year. And it was hard, it was really hard. At one point I was like, “I’m going to leave.” Yeah. I mean, I thought about quitting. I thought about, “Am I doing the right thing? Do I belong here? Can I stay here?” Here I was, my dream becoming true from age 10, and here I was in medical school and I was ready to give it up. I didn’t, clearly.
I forget where I heard this, but I heard someone say one time, “You don’t get to quit on your worst day. You get to quit on your best day. If you don’t like something, stick with it. And on your best day, if it’s still something that you can’t do, then okay, you can quit. But you don’t get to quit on your worst day.” And so I powered through it and really found the things that brought me life in medical school, whether that be doing things like this, like talking about my past or really talking about health equity and anti-Blackness and medical education and anti-Blackness in medicine, those things bring me life. And so once I was able to find my niche in medicine was when I was like, okay, I do belong here. I can do this. I will do this. I just got to figure out my own two feet and where I’m going to take this. Yeah. So it’s been hard but it’s been very, very rewarding.
Priscilla: Yeah. So you’re really unique in that you decided to add the dual MBA to your path. So how did that happen? What made you decide to go in that direction too?
Dekoiya: So actually it’s so funny because when I first went to Dell, I told myself I would never get an MBA. Why would you ever do that? And then here I am on the cusp of getting both. I think for me, once I realized that so much of healthcare is run by finances and business, and I just wanted to understand what are the business schools that drive healthcare, and how do I understand it? There’s so much happening as far as healthcare innovation, healthcare tech that a lot of physicians should be a part of. And a lot of physicians could offer a lot of insights to the solutions. Because I think now, we’re in a space where if we want to really solve some of the healthcare systems issues, it’s going to take more than just physicians and business people alone. We’re going to have to be really talking to each other and try new different models of care. And so for me, having that interdisciplinary background, that interdisciplinary experience was super crucial for me into learning how do we rebuild or how do we build parallel systems of care outside of the one that we currently have? So that’s why I did my MBA.
Priscilla: What would you tell someone who’s interested in pursuing your path? What would be your one piece of advice, and then what are you just most excited about for your future?
Dekoiya: Oh, I kind of have a bunch of little neat things to say, but I’ll try to be concise. Find yourself a great mentor and stick with that person. And that person doesn’t necessarily have to look like you or come where you come from, but someone who sees you and knows you really well and will advocate for you. And obviously that means putting yourself out there and trying to get to know your professors and advisors and things like that. So I would say that my second thing would be to surround yourself with good community. And I’m not just saying people who you can go party with and have fun with, all that is great, but people who will study with you and challenge you to be a better student and challenge you to level up. Luckily for me, my friends who I often had really great time were also the same people that I studied with. So that’ll help you realize that you’re not alone in the process. And then my third advice would be to ask all the dang questions in the world. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand” and “can you help me?” I think those would be my three biggest things for people who want to pursue medicine.
And what am I most excited for? Well, here, I’m going to graduate soon and figure out where I will train for residency. So that’s what I’m excited for. I know it won’t be in Austin because the program that I want to do, they don’t offer it here. So I’m going to be moving in the next year, which will be exciting. So I’m excited for that. And I’m just excited to see the dream realized. I’m excited to see how I will change. I’m excited to see what the future holds as far as what I can do with my MD/MBA. I’m just super excited for the future in general.
Priscilla: Thanks for tuning in to the Early Career Moves Podcast! Be sure to visit ECMPodcast.com to join the conversation, access the show notes, and become a part of our newsletter community. And if you loved this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Talk to you next week.