TORONTO -- A University of Toronto student has graduated as the medical school’s first black woman to be named standalone valedictorian — and the first woman to receive the honour in 14 years.

Chika Oriuwa, the child of Nigerian immigrants, made history on Tuesday while being the only black medical student in her 2016 university class of 259 people. 

In an interview with CTV News Toronto, Oriuwa shares her journey graduating and her fight to bring more black students into the major medical school located in one of the world’s most diverse cities.

Here’s what Oriuwa had to say, in her own words:

Q: In your valedictorian speech today, what message did you want to send to your fellow classmates and others who have been inspired by your story?

A: I tried to get across the idea of maintaining a sense of how you are defined or how you define yourself and the importance of not allowing anyone else to write your story for you. I wanted to share the importance of having a sense of conviction and purpose and knowing what it is you will and will not stand for and to allow that to sort of guide your journey.

My personal journey has been marked by being continuously inaccurately defined by other people and individuals who try to challenge, negate and deny my space in medicine. Ultimately, the only way that I have been able to overcome and challenge this adversity has been through having a strong sense of conviction and a sense of self. The conviction that I had in the importance of enhancing diversity, and equity and inclusive practises is what enabled me to navigate these difficult and controversial waters. I really wanted to be able to talk about our experiences collectively as a class but then also draw upon my story, which I believe contributed to why my class chose to have me as valedictorian.

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Q: In your own experiences, how have you witnessed the importance of diversity in the medical field?

A: I have had experiences that highlight the importance of diversity both by encounters with patients of a similar background as mine who have never seen a black physician, let alone a black female physician, and then also in other encounters where, once again, they have never seen someone that looks like me and, because of that, they treat me differently as a physician.

I have had encounters where I have literally walked into a room, and have had patients just start crying immediately after seeing me because they are just like “I’ve never felt safe to talk about certain things.” I have spent literally hours talking to these patients about issues they had never disclosed to a physician before because they didn’t feel comfortable talking about issues related to race or issues related to gun violence or police brutality. They had never felt comfortable disclosing that and how these issues impacted their health because, we have to remember, these things are part of the social determinants of health. Racism impacts one’s mental and physical wellness. Having that experience, where I have had patients just really become very overwhelmed with emotion and feel for the first time they can be heard, it is such an incredibly powerful thing.

On the other side, I have experiences with patients who try to deny me of my merit of being a medical school student and state things like, ‘I don’t think you are meant to be here and I don’t think you are part of the medical class.” Running down the emergency room (hospital ER), I had someone once yank on my shirt and ask me to start cleaning the floors because they were upset that I had wasted all these hours and they were unsure of what I was doing while I wasn’t doing custodial work. Of course, that is not to say that custodial work is any less important than what it was that I was doing. It was just that that wasn’t what I was trained to do and I wasn’t in that hospital for that purpose. I was there as a doctor-in-training. Recognizing the power of being in these spaces when you are of an underrepresented minority really further highlights the importance of having diversity in the medical classroom.

Q: What does it feel like for you to be graduating at this time when issues of police brutality and racism in the U.S. and Canada have come to the forefront?

A: It’s been pretty difficult to witness everything that is happening. One thing that I kind of repeatedly stated is that as a black woman who is a doctor, I can never divorce my identity of being a black woman and being a physician because the world simply does not give me that allowance. Not that I would ever choose to want to divorce these identities. What I mean by that, is that in the last week, especially where we are seeing this heightened civil unrest, I received a number of negative racist comments online that are directly attacking my character for simply learning that I was valedictorian of my graduating class and for no other reason. They stated things like they would not let me treat them if I was their attending physician or that they didn’t believe that I deserved to be valedictorian based off of nothing other than knowing that I am a black woman who is a valedictorian at U of T and that I am the only black senior in my class.

For me, it further heightened that there is no immunity to anti-blackness and systematic racism and that I am not immune to any of that and so it is all the more important for me to align myself with my community. I know that in a position of being a doctor or being in medicine, there is a certain privilege and responsibility allotted to that and it is my responsibility to leverage that power that I now possess in order to further strengthen and support my community. In light of everything that has been happening both in Canada and the U.S., it’s just heartbreaking, it’s devastating, it’s frustrating, it’s infuriating to see everything that is going on and that is why I have to be incredibly cognizant of what my role is and what it is that I can contribute and the privileges that I have.

Q: More history was made this past week as 24 black students were admitted to the University of Toronto’s medical school. How did you feel hearing that news?

A: I am incredibly proud of all the achievements of these students. It’s a bittersweet thing because this is the kind of community I wish I had and I wished I had over the last eight years. But it further reminds me that U of T is doing the work that has needed to be done for a long time. It’s a responsibility that needs to be shared by all medical institutions and all professions and professional schools. Knowing that there are 24 black students coming in is truly history that is being made.

I am just so proud of UofT. I am so proud of the Black faculty and so proud of the black community for the work that is being done. I am so proud of every single one of those black students who are entering the school and who will now have that sense of community, that solidarity, that support, that safety, that is so important for them to be able to thrive as medical students and as medical doctors in the future.

Q: How does diversity impact the medical school experience?

A: From the aspect of the medical education environment, being able introduce diversity to that space enriches the discussions that are able to happen, the perspectives, the unique lenses that are brought into discussions and these narratives that might otherwise not be present at the table. Increasing diversity also allows individuals who are of a minority background to feel safer in that space because when the fabric and the culture of a medical institution values diversity, it will also value the voice, the input and the concerns of individuals of a minority background so that they can feel more able and comfortable. Being able to train culturally rich and culturally sensitive and diverse doctors really ensures that when we are going out there and providing medical care that we are able to be a truly sensitive to our patient’s needs. Research demonstrates that individuals of a minority background are more likely to go back into the communities that are underserved, from which they identify. 


A previous version of this story stated that Chika Oriuwa was the first black female valedictorian in the history of the University of Toronto's Faculty of Medicine. She was the first standalone valedictorian. Kristine Whitehead was named co-valedictorian in 1992.