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Brett Tomlinson: Last year at Reunions, we spoke with Alicia Brooks Christy ’77, a doctor and health administrator who has worked for the National Institutes of Health and the Veterans Administration. She told us about her path to medicine, and the role that Princeton played in it.
Alicia Brooks Christy: My father was a dentist, but he died when I was 12. And my mother at the time of his death, she had only done two years of college and then she worked and supported my father through dental school. And she, when my father died, went back and finished school and graduated with honors, and became a schoolteacher. And so we didn’t have tremendous income, because my mother was a schoolteacher, and she said to me, “I want you to go to the best school that you get into, even if I have to eat beans for a year to do that.” And so I felt very good about the choice of Princeton, my mother felt very good about the choice of Princeton. And as a result of the generous financial aid package I got, my mother didn’t have to eat beans for a year. But she was very proud of the fact that I did attend and graduated from Princeton.
I’ve known that I wanted to be a physician since I was 14 or so. And when I applied to college, it was a selection based on what I thought would make me most competitive for medical school. And I applied to multiple Ivy League schools — Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. And I choose Princeton because they have such an emphasis on the undergraduate student, as opposed to Yale and Harvard who have a number of graduate schools. And so your ability to directly interface with professors is much greater at Princeton than it was at the other schools.
I never wavered in my decision to be pre-med, but I underestimated how challenging it was going to be. I went to a public high school that wasn’t very competitive; we didn’t have any AP classes. And so my classmates, a number of them, had been able to take AP classes, and their educational experience was much different than mine.
In freshman year, I called my mother and I said, “It’s so difficult. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to make it.” And my mother said, “Do you want me to talk to your teacher?” And that just made me laugh out loud, and I affirmed that yes, I can do this. And that made for a little levity in what was otherwise a stressful situation.
Once you got through freshman year, any advantage or disadvantage you had based upon your high school education was somewhat diminished. And so by my sophomore year, I felt much more confident. And I felt very good my junior year, and that’s when I was able to focus more on my major. When I started freshman year, I wanted to be a chemistry major, and I changed to biology, but I stayed in the sciences. And a number of my classmates either decided not to major in science who were pre-med, or decided not to be pre-med any longer. So I felt once I got through freshman year that I’d survived the gauntlet and that things were going to be OK.
It was a very exciting time at Princeton because at the time, it was during Apartheid and there were a number of anti-Apartheid demonstrations, and the draft had recently ended, and there had been demonstrations about the Vietnam War, and politically things were very interesting. As a pre-med student, there were so many course requirements, and the competition is so keen that much of my focus was on academics, and many of my friendships and connections were with other pre-medical students. And I can clearly remember I was on my way to organic chemistry lab, and I saw the demonstrations and I said, “You know, they are so brave, and I am not that brave, and I’m going to continue on to organic chemistry lab.” Because I felt at the time I could do more for my community as a physician than I could if I got suspended. But I really admired the courage and the commitment of the students who were willing to risk that for what they believed in.
BT: While her Princeton education proved valuable, Christy is
even more grateful for the foundation provided by her mother, Mary Yvonne Brooks, who set a lasting example for her daughter.
ABC: Well, she was my first and most important role model, and she was a tremendous mentor to me. And something I didn’t find out until many years after I graduated medical school, I had a health profession scholarship, which meant that I had an obligation to the military after I finished medical school, and they paid all my fees and tuition and provided a stipend. And given the bureaucracy of the military, they didn’t get all of the paperwork completed before I started medical school. And my mother paid for my first semester of medical school, and I didn’t know that. I thought the military paid for it, and she didn’t tell me until years later. So she made a number of sacrifices for me for which I’ll, you know, always be grateful. She always believed in me, which helped me to believe in myself.
BT: Our thanks to Alicia Brooks Christy for sharing her story. Brett Tomlinson produced this episode. The music is licensed from FirstCom Music.