At Charles Drew, students overcome obstacles to graduate

Javay Ross and Eva Correa chose Charles Drew University’s medical school because they wanted to work with the people who live in South Los Angeles.

But halfway through their four-year programs, the emergency rooms and inpatient units at Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital closed. They and their classmates were sent to UCLA’s hospitals, and some wondered if their academic futures were also in jeopardy.

“We knew there were problems in the hospital, but not to the extent of it being closed,” said Ross, 25. “We were caught off-guard, kind of surprised, and just devastated, because that was the whole reason we came to Drew.”

The university endured its own difficulty, with harsh accreditation reports and the replacement of its administration.


On Saturday, Ross said, the class of 2009 had “made it through,” and she graduated alongside 142 other students -- 28 of them future doctors, and the rest future radiologists, substance abuse counselors, physician assistants and other health professionals.

Ross, who is the College of Medicine’s 2009 class president, said that despite the turmoil, students were still devoted to the school and hospital’s core mission: serving people without easy access to, or who cannot afford, good healthcare.

“In the face of that very disappointing news, our deans did an amazing job of incorporating us into the UCLA clinical clerkships for our third year of medical school, and we are grateful for all of those opportunities today,” she said in a speech at the ceremony.

“We learned a lot and have great memories at every hospital at which we rotated, but there was always a feeling of void. No matter how great other rotations were, no other setting seemed to quite match the patient and case diversity and richness of training we believed we would receive at King/Drew Medical Center,” she said, referring to the hospital by its former name.


“There were some who thought this class would never make it to graduation,” said Keith Norris, the university’s interim president. “That’s not because the students aren’t capable. It’s because they thought the university would not survive the hospital’s closing.”

Parents and friends sitting under white tents cheered for the graduates in purple leis and black mortarboards. There were only brief mentions of the hospital’s closure, but many students said it was a pivotal moment in their academic careers.

“We were frustrated and angry and sad for the community because we really see the need,” said Correa, who plans to serve her residency in psychiatry at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, during his commencement speech, told the graduates he was proud of them because “you fight, and you fight, and you fight.”


“I see a lot of myself in all of you. Now, I will never be a surgeon, obviously, or a pharmacist, and you will never be a Terminator or Conan the Barbarian, that’s clear. But we all have one thing in common; we all have overcome tremendous odds in order to be here today,” he said.

Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science was created after the Watts riots of 1965, and since 1971 it has graduated several hundred doctors and thousands of physician specialists and assistants.

Quiana Wicks, 30, grew up in Lynwood and said she hoped to help people like her grandmother, who died in 2007 after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. On Saturday, she earned a master’s degree in public health, a bachelor’s degree in health science and a certificate from the physician assistant program.

Correa, 33, said she went to Drew because she remembered how difficult it was for her family to get good medical care. The youngest of 10 children born to migrant farmworkers from Zacatecas, Mexico, she grew up in Merced, and as a child, she helped translate doctor’s orders for her mother, who had diabetes.


“It was really difficult a lot of the time because I didn’t know the medical terminology. Later on I started understanding how there’s such a big need for Latino doctors,” she said.

“I can’t believe that I’m going to actually achieve my dream of becoming a doctor. My mom and dad only went to elementary school. They only have a fifth-grade level education,” she said.

“Anything’s possible.”