CDA Student Profile: Crossing the Lines of Diversity

By Vivian Flowers, MPS
Director of Recruitment and Retention
UAMS Center for Diversity Affairs

Barbara Johnson
COM, Year 1 Student

For many, the concept of diversity is synonymous to just one of its dimensions – race, a concept often concentrated into the common denominator most identify with – in Arkansas’ case, black and white. But in the case of Barbara Johnson, first-year medical student at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, her life experience exemplifies the multi-dimensional nature of diversity. Within her community of fellow students as well as outside of the UAMS microcosm, Barbara crosses the lines of diversity in ways that are neither traditional nor readily apparent.

Barbara’s path toward academic study at UAMS did not begin in Arkansas. She was born to an African-American mother and a Puerto Rican father in Chicago, Ill. Her maternal grandmother became the primary caregiver of Barbara and her sister, struggling financially, but easily rearing them with love, discipline and guidance, to which Barbara fervently attributes her decision to become a physician as well as to her desire to serve others and give back. 

“We didn’t have much, but community service was something we always did together,” Barbara recalls “At five- or six-years-old, I worked with my grandmother and sister at the food pantry putting ice in the cups. My grandma did a lot of volunteering, but also gave by doing things in the community like making these huge peanut butter cookies and just giving them out to everybody.”

Her grandmother also gave of herself through her job as a nurse, which is how Barbara was exposed to medicine at an early age. She reflects, “My grandmother gave up her career to take care of my sister and me when I was three. I remember asking her what she did the day she unpacked her locker at the hospital. When she told me, I said ‘I want to be a nurse just like you,’ but she encouraged me to be a doctor.”

Still struggling many years later to raise her granddaughters alone in the economically depressed Inglewood neighborhood, her grandmother made a final living sacrifice that changed Barbara’s life forever and in many ways. At 12 years old, she was adopted at by a family who raised her until she left home to attend college at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. During the years with her adoptive family, she missed her grandmother and sister, but grew to love her adoptive family and continued to thrive academically throughout high school and into college. Science was her first love, but she toyed with journalism and graphic design before finally deciding on biology as a major in college.

Transitioning from the affluent Hyde Park, Chicago neighborhood to a historically black university in the small southern city of Pine Bluff, Ark., was Barbara’s next life-changing challenge. While at UAPB, passions and pursuits that came naturally to her shaped what would be a successful path toward admission to medical school – high grades, internships, summer research, biology club leadership, and campus and community service.  Meanwhile, Barbara worked part-time jobs to survive financially, as she stayed focused on medical school.

“When I was a freshman in college, I couldn’t see myself doing anything else,” she said. “When I was recruited by UAMS, I knew I was ready to take the MCAT and apply to medical school, but I guess I wasn’t ready to take rejection if it came. When you want something your whole life, and you’re rejected, it can just hurt so much.”

Despite personal and financial hurdles, Barbara persevered through graduation into the following year, which provided opportunities that any pre-med student would clamor for. She participated in a low-cost MCAT prep course and worked for a husband and wife team of physicians (UAPB and UAMS alumni) who practiced orthopedics and gynecology/obstetrics, respectively.

“The CDA was instrumental in giving me the information and assistance I needed to push forward,” she said. “The spring MCAT prep helped me learn how to really prepare for and take the test, boosted my confidence, and encouraged me to study after the course ended so I would do well. And I did!”

The tapestry of Barbara Johnson’s life experience encompasses identifying features and distinctions that have defined her path as a student and will define her path as a physician in the future. As a bi-racial, Christian woman who grew up in economically disadvantaged and affluent urban neighborhoods, was raised in a blended then adoptive family structure, and was a first-generation college graduate, Barbara is one facet of the rich diversity at UAMS. Like Barbara’s, every student’s enriching differences are unique and cannot be limited to gender and race or discerned by appearance and accent.