Island Dreams: A Xavier Student’s Journey to Pursuing Her Passion

It takes more than good grades to become a great doctor. Compassion, empathy and a love for helping others are virtues that you cannot learn from a textbook. For Michelle Mawere, a first-year medical student at Xavier University School of Medicine (XUSOM) in Aruba, it was her family’s traditional Zimbabwean values and caring for her autistic brother that laid the foundation for her passion to becoming a doctor.

A foundation of family and values

Growing up on Long Island, NY, Mawere experienced life differently than most students. As the eldest daughter—steeped in her family’s Zimbabwean traditions—she was responsible for the needs of her siblings and assisting her mother and grandmother with keeping their home. Part of her responsibilities included caring for her older brother, Joshua, who is on the autism spectrum. “My culture puts an emphasis on respecting those older than us, looking to them for guidance and acknowledging their wisdom,” said Mawere. “Due to his autism, our roles are reversed, as I hold the weight of what would have been his responsibility as the oldest. Loving and caring for Joshua has taught me how to be empathetic, compassionate and more attentive to subtle behavior—all attributes of being a great doctor.”

The journey between islands

Mawere is no stranger to the medical field. Her father, Dr. Jonathan Mawere earned his medical degree from XUSOM in Aruba, and so she was already familiar with the Caribbean medical school. She had different plans, however, for life after high school. She attended New York University (NYU), where she studied humanities and earned a degree in Social and Cultural Analysis. “I commuted five hours to college, round-trip, every day,” Mawere said. “Staying on campus after class was never an option for me. I studied at the kitchen table so I could be accessible to my family. It was challenging not having my own study space, but I did it out of love and respect for my family.” It was during her time at NYU when she realized that she could bridge her passion for race, gender and socioeconomic issues to a career as physician. “I dedicated my studies to learning seven different spheres of culture including Africana, American, Asian and Pacific Islander, Latinx, LGBTQIA+Gender, Metropolitan, Urban and Women’s Studies,” she said proudly.

“One day, something clicked inside of me. I knew at that moment I wanted to become a doctor, like my dad.” She began the application process of applying only to Caribbean medical schools, including XUSOM. Part of this process is completing an interview. “My interview with Xavier was a wonderful experience,” she explained. “It was a warm and welcoming conversation. I knew I would feel safe and secure there.” Mawere was excited to learn of her acceptance. “It was time for me to trade Long Island for the island of Aruba and begin a new chapter in my life.”

Embracing opportunity

Leaving home wasn’t an easy decision for Mawere, but she knew that attending medical school would lead to her true calling in life. Like most medical students, she was concerned about the cost of attending medical school. She explored the several scholarship opportunities at Xavier and discovered the Congressman John Lewis Equality Memorial Scholarship, which provides financial assistance to underrepresented minority students. In addition to meeting the standard criteria for all scholarships at XUSOM, she was required to submit a personalized video, where she explained her vision of how she intends to further John Lewis’ legacy of fighting inequality in her professional and personal life. “I was honored and thrilled to hear I was the recipient of this generous scholarship,” she said emotionally. “As a Black woman, this means so much to have the opportunity to pursue my dream in his memory.”

Making her mark at Xavier

Mawere wasted no time at becoming acclimated to her new life in Aruba. She said the diversity on campus made her feel like she was home. “As a Black woman, I’m proud to be a part of such a special group of peers who share the same goals and dreams as I do. I believe it’s important that we stay true to our character and not let stereotypes get in the way of our success.”

She embraced her classes, met new friends, and soaks up the amazing view from her apartment every day. “The small class sizes make all the difference,” she said. “I’ve made so many friends, and the professors and faculty are wonderful. They truly care about each and every student.” And as for the tropical setting, Mawere said there’s nothing better to soothe the spirit than the beautiful island of Aruba. “There’s no denying it: Medical school is hard and can be stressful at times. Looking out on to the ocean and the beautiful tropical setting is just what students need to reenergize after a long day.” Even with a busy schedule, Mawere still finds time to show her leadership skills by staying involved on campus. She is currently the vice president of the student government association, where she oversees all of the university’s clubs. “I believe it’s important to understand the dynamics of the student body—their likes and dislikes—and what makes them tick. I’m hoping to start an ethics club in the fall.”

Caring for others begins with self-care

As a self-proclaimed fashionista, Mawere brought all of her favorite clothes and accessories with her to Aruba. She explained how it’s important to take care of yourself first, so that you can then bring your best version of yourself to others. “Self-care is so important—especially when you’re feeling stressed and challenged. Even if it means doing a quick facial or taking a break from the books and meeting up with friends—giving yourself some ‘me’ time is the best way to recharge and get back into it with even more vigor.”

Reflecting on Black History Month

When asked about her thoughts as a Black woman entering the medical profession, Mawere stated: “I want to be the change. I feel it’s my responsibility to be relatable to patients from all walks of life. Studying humanities has improved my ability to be a great doctor. Understanding the issues of underserved communities will give me an edge in helping bridge cultural gaps between myself and my patients. I’m grateful for the opportunity to pursue my dream of becoming a doctor, and confident that Xavier will be there every step of the way.”