The college access and success field is old enough that classes of students we’ve supported have graduated and are now creating the change we want to see in the world. As NCAN marks 25 years of progress in the effort to close equity gaps in higher education, our Alumni Spotlight series will feature the stories of outstanding alumni who have come through our member organizations over the years.
At a time such as this, we believe it’s still important to share the success stories of the students our members serve. We hope you enjoy the series and this week’s alumni.
In spring 2020, Kaila Holloway found herself in the same boat as millions of students across the country. As a second-year medical student, her classes were now all online.
When she was a young girl, Kaila knew she wanted to become a doctor. Growing up in New Orleans, Kaila would visit her grandmother at the hospital, where she worked as registered nurse. On Kaila’s visits, it did not take long for her to realize there were
no female doctors who looked like her. So, Kaila made it her mission to change the narrative.
After graduating from Howard University in Washington, D.C., Kaila returned to New Orleans to pursue her M.D. at Louisiana State University. While Kaila has faced tragedy and loss in her journey through college, she is determined to be the representation
for the next generation of Black doctors to come.
Read more about Kaila’s story below.
Note: The responses below have been lightly copy edited for clarity.
Tell us a story of how a mentor or counselor helped you on your journey to earn your postsecondary degree/credential.
I first met Mr. Mike when I was a junior in high school. I was a part of the College Track New Orleans program, and he was doing his service learning hours for his master's degree in public health there. One day, I met with him to talk about
different college scholarships that I should apply for going into my senior year. That meeting changed my life for the better, and I gained a mentor who cared not only about my academic success, but also my mental health and well-being.
During my senior year of high school, I would meet with Mr. Mike after school to work on my college personal statement and the applications to the scholarships that he told me about. I was not his student, nor was he paid to help me, but he did it because
he knew the importance of mentorship and giving back to the youth in the community. He wanted to uplift Black and Brown children, and help to open doors for them that otherwise would have remained closed. He poured into me, and helped me put my best
self forward in all of my college/scholarship applications. With his help, I received acceptances to highly selective universities around the country that I never even considered applying to.
His mentorship did not stop after I was accepted into college; he maintained our relationship throughout my undergraduate career, and now into my first year of medical school. I can say without a doubt that I would not be where I am today, a rising third-year
medical student, without his support throughout the years. I can only hope that I one day I am able to do for other students what Mr. Mike did for me as a high school senior.
As a student, what hurdles did you face while getting your postsecondary degree/credential?
My second year of undergrad was one of the toughest hurdles that I had to face during my road to getting a postsecondary degree. On June 20, 2015, my life was shattered. My father, a police officer with the New Orleans Police Department for over 20 years,
was murdered in the line of duty. This tragedy happened while I was in New York City for my first internship the summer after my freshman year at Howard University. I just talked to my father the night before. He was asking about how I liked my internship
and being in New York. Then Saturday morning, my world turned upside down when I got a phone call from my little brother asking if our daddy was really killed. At first I thought it was a sick prank being played on me, until I checked ww.nola.com.
The first headline I saw was “slain police officer…” I cried myself into oblivion, until my flight landed in New Orleans that evening.
My sophomore year of college was a whirlwind of emotions and depression following the death of my father. I initially thought that immersing myself in schoolwork and extracurricular activities would help me escape the pain I felt. Instead, I was just
putting off grieving, and not allowing myself to come to terms with the fact that he was no longer here in the physical form.
This began to catch up to me during the spring semester, and I found myself spending more days locked in my room crying than out in public. I missed my family in New Orleans, and considered leaving Howard University to be closer to them. My grades began
to suffer, and I was in danger of failing two classes. I was reaching my breaking point, and I am grateful that I had people around me to support me when I needed it the most. My friends and mentors helped me more than they know spring semester. I
was able to finish the semester without failing any classes, and was convinced to stay at Howard for the duration of my undergraduate career.
Why was it important for you to get your postsecondary degree/credential?
My parents have always instilled the importance of education in me. Neither of them graduated from college, and they wanted better for their children. Growing up, it was never a question of “if” I would be going to college. It was always “where.” As I
got older, I began to see the importance of education for myself. I was no longer doing well in school to please my parents and get a reward. I was doing it because I had goals that I wanted to achieve, and knew that a postsecondary degree was the
only way to get there.
A college degree would open doors for me, and allow me to sit at tables that were not made with people who looked like me in mind. Having that platform would allow me to create opportunities for other Black boys and girls, who do not have people telling
them they could be anything they put their mind to growing up. For me, having a college education always served a bigger purpose. It would allow me to be a voice for people in my community whose voices have been silenced for way too long. I plan to
use my privilege as an educated Black woman to uplift and serve my people.
What inspires you to work in your field?
Growing up, I always knew I wanted to be a doctor. My grandmother was a registered nurse, and I wanted to be just like her until she told me to be more than her. Since then, my goal was to become a physician – the first in my family. The deeper I dive
into the field of medicine, the more I am impassioned and understand how much I am needed.
In a country where 12.1% of the population is Black, only 5% of physicians are African-American. Looking deeper, only 2% of physicians are Black women. Knowing these statistics, and the fact that Black people are disproportionately affected by many chronic
diseases and other health disparities inspires me every day to continue down this path to becoming a doctor. Black people have historically been subjected to pain and experimentation at the hands of physicians in the name of “advancing education and
knowledge.” Even today, Black women are four times more likely to die due to pregnancy-related events than their white counterparts. Systemic racism is still prevalent in medicine, and it is a public health crisis. These facts inspire me to pursue
this career. To push those barriers that my ancestors faced when trying down this path.
I want to use the gift of medicine to make a difference in communities with limited access to quality health care, who are disproportionately affected by health disparities. More culturally competent physicians are needed to address the needs of people
from different backgrounds, with different experiences than their own. I plan to be that type of physician.
In light of COVID-19, it’s important for students to hear words of encouragement from those who were in their shoes not long ago. What advice would you give to students right now?
I can certainly attest that these are unprecedented times. I was in the spring semester of my second year of medical school, when we suddenly moved to online learning. Studying for my first medical licensing exam amid a global pandemic has been challenging,
but words of encouragement from friends, mentors, and residents alike have all pushed me to keep going.
With that being said, I want to remind students that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The world around you may seem dark right now, but focusing on that light and the end goal can help you remember your purpose and why you are doing this. Most
importantly, I want students to remember that you are needed and add value to whatever career you are seeking. You are an inspiration to so many people coming after you!
How does postsecondary education affect the community where you grew up?
The high school graduation rate in New Orleans is 78%. This is lower than the both the state and national average. In my community, you are an exception to the rule if you not only attend college, but graduate. I graduated from the best public high school
in the state, and even that did not mean many of my peers/former classmates would attain a postsecondary degree. There are so many obstacles preventing students from graduating from college that are not talked about enough. In my community, postsecondary
education is a privilege, when it should be a right.
Although having a college degree is a privilege, especially in New Orleans, there is also the potential to use that privilege for so much more. My degree gives me a means to give back to a community that has done so much for me. It allows me to be a part
of the change that I want to see in my city. Me being a Black woman with a college degree who is in medical school allows me to show other Black students that it can be done. It also gives me the chance to help other students get it done. I am committed
to using my platform to make that happen whether that be through mentorship, after-school programs, scholarships, etc.
What barriers do Louisiana students face in accessing higher education?
Louisiana is one of the lowest-ranked states as far as education. There are so many barriers to education that students in this state face, especially students of color. I attended public schools in New Orleans my entire life, and can attest to the fact
that there is a lack of quality public education in the city. Schools in New Orleans are underfunded, lack diversity among teachers, and also have a large population of inexperienced teachers working through programs like Teach For America. All of
these things have an effect on the way material is taught and received by the students. Emphasis is not placed on understanding the material, and many schools lack the resources they need to help students who are struggling.
Aside from the systematic problems within the school, poverty, violence, and mental health issues prevent students from succeeding in school. If students in Louisiana are not able to grasp concepts in middle and high school, how will they be able to do
so on a college level? The answer is that they will not. Our students need support and resources to address concerns bigger than not having enough textbooks for students. We need more programs like College Track to support students on their journey
to postsecondary education. Until these social determinants are addressed, students will continue to face these same barriers to education.