Building a Black community of support a key part of MD student’s journey


From left, Merhu Abel Berhe, Gelila Alemayheu, and Isidora Ntienjem-Sherwood – building community.

By Cam Buchan

The journey to medical school began as a dream of a 12-year-old Black girl, who saw the inequities of life in her home in Ethiopia and wanted to make a difference.

Now that dream is beginning to take on shape and meaning for Gelila Alemayheu, a second-year student in the MD program at Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry. And the lessons learned during a journey sometimes marked by uncertainty and self-doubt, at other times bolstered by unexpected support along the way, are ones that Alemayheu wants to pass on to other aspiring Black medical students, both here and as part of the Black Medical Students Association of Canada (BMSAC).

Two years in Ethiopia

Alemayheu was born and raised in Toronto, Ontario, and moved to Ethiopia with her family at the end of grade 6. For the two years she lived in that country, she saw first-hand the differences in wealth and poverty between her family and others there. That was the first real-world definition of what it meant to be “privileged.” 

“The differences were so drastic,” she said. “It made me want to dedicate my life to serving people who were disadvantaged. But I didn’t know to what capacity because I was so young.”

Alemayheu had a love for science, which eventually drew her to McMaster University and aspirations for a science degree, and maybe, just maybe, a career in medicine.

“But I saw how little representation there was of Black people in undergrad, especially in science programs,” she said. “It discouraged me from pursuing medicine because I thought, ‘if I’m not seeing a lot of Black doctors, if I’m not seeing a lot of Black medical students, it must be more difficult than I think it is. Maybe I’m not smart enough or maybe I can’t achieve it.’”

But those self-doubts were soon replaced with new connections.

Alemayheu found other Black students in the program who shared her goals. In second year, she connected with an organization called the Black Aspiring Physicians of McMaster Association. The organization created events for aspiring physicians – and she eventually became president in her fourth year, supporting Black students through the challenges of applying to medical school.

“It was so important to me to help other people create a future where they can see themselves in careers they aspire to, like medicine. It really became a passion of mine.”

That passion led her to Schulich Medicine, and new challenges.

First year in a new school was hard. A new program, few Black people in the room. Missing her family and friends in Toronto. It all led her to feel displaced after coming to London from a more diverse academic experience.

“Schulich was a bit different in terms of diversity and so it was hard to adjust in first year,” said Alemayheu.

Now as a second-year student, Alemayheu has developed an affection for the School and the city.

“I feel a lot more comfortable and do feel like I belong,” she said. “The people and the staff are phenomenal, and it genuinely feels like people want to see you do well and succeed. Initially, I was nervous but now I am finding my footing and enjoying the small-town feel of London.”

National challenges

With her hesitancy turning to optimism, Alemayheu has made it her goal to ensure the different populations that doctors are serving are better represented in the classroom.

She is taking this passion to the national stage with the BMSAC – a collaborative network of Black medical students across Canada that seeks to secure equitable representation of Black students in Canadian medical schools. As director of Advocacy and Representation, she builds the supports and networking events to help Black medical students across Canada achieve their career dreams.

Dreams that are becoming – if slowly – a reality for Black medical students across Canada.

Formed in 2020, the BMSAC quickly released its Calls to Action to the 17 Canadian Faculties of Medicine, with follow-up reviews in 2021 from the perspective of Black medical students on progress made on the initial report.

“Western fared well in the reviews with strong support for students from a wellness perspective,” said Julianah Oguntala, chair of the BMSAC. “However, improvements are still needed in admissions, with the need for a dedicated Black pathway stream, a curriculum review with a focus on implementing skin of color in non-dermatology blocks, and improving discussions around the history of anti-Black racism in medicine.”

While still in its infancy, the organization has seen its numbers grow – from approximately 50 at its general meeting in 2020, to more than 100 attendees at its April 2022 meeting, with every faculty represented.

This year, in collaboration with the Network for the Advancement of Black Learners (NABL) and the Association of the Faculties of Medicine of Canada (AFMC), the organization is undertaking an official environmental scan from the perspective of the 17 Faculties of Medicine, said Oguntala. “We aim to celebrate the progress that has been made and to identify gaps that remain.”

Alemayheu also remains an advocate at the local level.

She is helping develop a mentorship program for Black medical students at all stages of their careers. The goal is to equip them with the tools to achieve success and then help them support the next generation of students, as well as advocating for marginalized populations as physicians – a virtuous circle.

“A lot of Black students don’t have family or friends in medicine, so at least with this kind of community, they can always feel supported,” said Alemayheu, who is looking to build a BMSAC chapter at Schulich.

Her own career

“I definitely think about that a lot,” said Alemayheu, who sees a future in psychiatry, and in helping make a difference in peoples’ lives in a more holistic sense. Just like that 12-year-old girl in Ethiopia.

“In psychiatry, a lot of the patients you meet aren't always in the greatest of circumstances, both from a social perspective and mental health perspective. Sometimes you meet people who are at some of the lowest points in their life and I aspire to meet patients where they’re at and empower them to improve their quality of life and achieve their personal goals.”

Learn more about the Black Medical Students Association of Canada by emailing or Follow on social: @bmsacanada