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Future graduate student reflects on being a minority in pre-med

By Diamond Walker

Kaiya Bernard is a senior graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology on a pre-med track. She plans to return to the University of Illinois once again to receive her master’s degree in Public Health Administration. Bernard will be studying abroad in Africa this winter, where she will be doing a week of service while learning about South African history. Benard has used her skills as an artist to help other minorities thrive in art. I spoke with Bernard on Monday, Oct. 29, 2022, and she gave a detailed look at how it feels to be a black woman in STEM programs while letting us in on some inside tips on how to navigate our mental health in predominantly white spaces.

This segment has been edited for length and clarity.

Interviewer: What advice would you give students interested in studying abroad?

Bernard: Talking to people, if you're black, talking to other black students who have studied abroad. Often the study abroad program is dominated by white students because it can become expensive, but there are many financial options. A lot of things they don't tell you that I had to figure out on my own. Explore on your own and see what's best for you. There is a lot of funding and scholarships for these programs. I hope to have a panel when I come back so black students can come to talk and ask questions about studying abroad and how that process goes

Interviewer: Tell me about the hardest obstacles you have faced during your undergraduate.

Bernard: Imposter syndrome would be my most difficult challenge. I believe most of it comes from people in my major, advisors and staff talking down on me and other black students of color, especially being a black woman in STEM. It becomes hard to show my skills and everything I can do. Many people think black women are incapable, but that's far from the truth. I shouldn't have to prove why I should be here when I got accepted because of what I am capable of producing. I have to prove every day why I am good enough, making me question my worth. I had to stop listening to those outside voices.

Interviewer: What strategies did you use to overcome Imposter Syndrome?

Bernard: Stray away from discrimination by joining MAPS and other black pre-health RSOs. They will help guide your four-year plan, even though they are students. They also encourage you by bringing in doctors and medical students who are minorities and have successfully finished their prospective programs. It becomes real when you go into these places and have these opportunities because you can relate to them, unlike when you go into these white spaces and see all white faces, white doctors and nurses. The future can start to feel like it is not attainable because you didn’t come from that background and resources.

Interviewer: Tell us more about your passion to paint.

Bernard: I started painting during COVID-19 and exploring my creativity. I'm the president of InLivingColor. We have various workshops that have helped me learn while teaching others. This organization creates a space for black artists to perform their art, ranging from hip-hop to art, poetry and painting.

Interviewer: What Is one thing you would change about your undergraduate experience?

Bernard: Getting more involved with the black community sooner, I believe there is a lack of connection because I am Pre-med and always studying, working, and volunteering. I have never been to a black event like Afro vibes here at the university because I haven’t prioritized meeting more black people in the social setting.

Interviewer: Do you believe you have to put in extra effort to be a part of the black community at UIUC?

Bernard: I don't have problems academically because im in different RSOs curated for African American students in health, but when it comes to social events, I wish I was more present in those spaces

Interviewer: What is your biggest accomplishment?

Bernard: My biggest accomplishment is getting accepted into the graduate program. When I was a senior in high school, I did not want to go to college. However, I've taken a big turnaround. I would have never thought I would be getting my next degree and receiving a prestigious scholarship. Hopefully, this will further open the door for me in education. I recognize not everybody has a chance of getting that type of higher education.

Interviewer: What tips do you have for applying to the graduate program?

Bernard: I think I found a common theme, don't listen to the white people who are trying to tell you you are not good enough. I went to the career center to get my personal statement revised. The advisor wanted to change everything. I went with my conscience and submitted my original work, and I was accepted. You know yourself the best, do not let people put you in a box you do not fit in. You must emphasize in your statement and resume why you are the best candidate for the program. Reach out to current graduate students that would understand where you are coming from to revise your material.

Interviewer: As a minority in leadership positions, what challenges have you faced?

Bernard: I spread myself too thin, and I hate asking for help. You must remember you are always working in a team. It is okay to give people responsibilities and delegate, as that is the whole point of a leader. Members should be attentive and support you as well. I also had to learn when to say no and not be afraid to share my thoughts and bring in other people’s opinions.

Interviewer: Best memory here at the university?

Bernard: Being on homecoming court will stick with me for a long time. This is not something everybody gets to experience. You get a lot of networking opportunities and go to a lot of different places.

Interviewer: What tips do you have for applying for homecoming court?

Bernard: Be your most genuine self, and don’t try to make yourself seem like something you’re not. Know you’re capable of getting on homecoming court. You need to put effort into your interview and resume. Prepare for your interview, and don’t be modest about yourself. If you have accomplishments emphasize that. This is the time to talk highly about yourself and show what you have done.

Interviewer: If you could choose UIUC again, would you?

Bernard: I wouldn't see myself getting as much as I didn't have here, feel like I took advantage of a lot of resources here at the university. I have participated and networked as much as possible

Interviewer: What tips do you have for freshmen?

Bernard: Don't be afraid about not knowing what you want to do. When I first arrived, it felt like everybody had everything figured out. It was a long time until I picked my passion. It's okay if you don't know within the last couple of years. You have to choose something you will be comfortable doing for the rest of your life. It's no longer about your friends or what your family wants. You must do everything for yourself, study for yourself and go to class. These four years are your personal development. If you follow what somebody else wants, you will not be happy, and it will not correlate with what you want out of life.

Bernard has demonstrated leadership and strength in navigating her journey to receiving her medical degree. Her academic success and experience have gained her a spot on the 2022 Homecoming court. She has also been on the Dean’s List and volunteers at Carle Hospital and Don Moyers Boys & Girls Club. She also holds numerous executive positions around campus.

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