smiling man with sunglasses in limo
Anthony Sawyer is a man of many talents. Here he is about to officiate a wedding involving fellow 2010 Mississippi Delta alum Alex Tenenbaum.

How Rural Schools Steered a Future Doctor Toward the Fight for Equitable Healthcare

On track to earn degrees in medicine and public health, Anthony Sawyer's experience as a student and teacher in rural communities has uniquely prepared him for his next career step.
Wednesday, August 3, 2016

For a child growing up with eight siblings in rural Camden, North Carolina, the chances of making it to college might have seemed slim. But Anthony Sawyer never paid too much attention to probability—except when he was teaching algebra and geometry in the Mississippi Delta as a 2010 Teach For America corps member.

“It was always emphasized to us that education was not only a priority, but a ticket to do whatever it is you wanted in life,” he says. “I saw all my siblings before me—all Black, living in a tiny, rural town, and not wealthy—finish college successfully. That was exciting for me, because it showed that it was achievable. When I later became a teacher, I wanted my students to feel the same way.”

Sawyer not only got his undergraduate degree from the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, he’s on his way to earning two more diplomas: one in medicine from the University of Michigan Medical School, and another from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, which he completed requirements for in May. He’ll receive both degrees in 2017.

Sawyer plans to put those degrees to good use, continuing his impact on students by becoming a pediatric anesthesiologist and policymaker focusing on health disparities. We caught up with him to hear more about how Teach For America shaped his path as an educator and future physician.

family of nine children with parents
Sawyer (bottom, second from left in suit) was one of nine siblings growing up in Camden, North Carolina (Population: 10,187).

After graduating from the University of North Carolina, you put your plans for med school on hold to join Teach For America. Why?

Yes, I was pre-med, but I knew that going directly to medical school wouldn't be the right move out of undergrad—I wasn’t sure what that would be.

I have two older siblings who are teachers, so I applied to Teach For America knowing that teaching was an incredibly difficult profession. However, I also realized this program is placing really enthusiastic people who might not otherwise be in the classroom into an environment where they can work hard every day and be a positive role model and quality educator.

After being accepted into TFA, I was initially afraid that I had made a mistake. I talked to Krystal Cormack (Mississippi ’04), and she answered a lot of my questions. I left that conversation knowing not only that TFA places people in an environment where they can have a lasting impact, but that the Mississippi Delta in particular is a place that can grow on you and have an impact on you as well.

harvard student accepting diploma at graduation
Sawyer at his graduation ceremony from Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

You really emphasize how proud you are to have taught in the Mississippi Delta. You grew up in a rural town, so was the transition a little easier than most, as far as relating to your students and the community?

I think people oftentimes, myself included, assume that all rural environments are created equally. I’m Black and grew up in rural North Carolina, so I thought that automatically I’d have a rapport with my students, but the two states are hardly the same. Mississippi is a place that, unfortunately, many parts of the country have forgotten. It’s a place with so much incredible potential, talent, and promise, but it’s also a place that doesn’t enter people’s frame of reference in terms of a place where you can grow and advance your career.

That has an impact on our schools. A lot of our rural students get to and through college, but they don’t necessarily go back to their hometowns to teach. So Teach For America, in a sense, served as an infusion of really committed, passionate people on the ground. As a corps member, you’re learning the issues they’re facing—because many of them don’t have the luxury of just leaving, because things aren’t going the way they want them to go, or because they don't have a clear vision for their future.

You’re now pursuing your original goal of graduating from medical school. Has your time as a corps member influenced how you want to proceed with your career as a doctor?

Once I decided to leave the classroom, I knew that I would continue my journey to med school. I think my experiences and my journey overall helped paint a picture of the type of person I was in my application. I’m currently on track to get dual degrees from the University of Michigan Medical School and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. It’s rigorous. It’s difficult. But I take a lot of what I learned from teaching in my approach to school.

What I realized from teaching is that so much of what determines and dictates our kids’ success takes place outside of the classroom. One of those things is health. If kids are sick, if they’re hungry, if they’re hurting, or if they can’t see the whiteboard because they don’t have glasses, that’s going to decrease their chances of being successful in the classroom. School systems are doing many innovative things to address these challenges, but that’s not always enough.

My goal is to be a pediatric anesthesiologist and then to be a policymaker focusing on health disparities and children’s health. I hope that the policies I help make and my clinical practice will increase the odds that the kids I impact will have an easier time learning when they get to school.

One thing I carry with me from my Teach For America experience is that finding a way to do something well like teaching is not a simple solution. It’s not a technical solution. It takes creativity. It takes innovation. It takes failing and trying again. It takes getting feedback. And it takes being vulnerable and asking for help sometimes. You need those traits if you want to succeed in medicine, public health, or any field.

doctor in scrubs
Sawyer relishes making the most of his new chapter as a medical student at the University of Michigan.

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