I was sitting at Starbucks with my mentor, a laptop between us open to a spreadsheet of residency programs. There were so many to choose from and I had no idea how to narrow my list. We discussed private versus county, large cities versus small towns, three year versus four year, and then he said “consider if you want to be the only Indian in the program”. That comment surprised me. I had no column in my spreadsheet for diversity.

Perhaps it’s privilege or naivety (or a combination of the two), but I had never thought to consider race or gender when making my career goals. I grew up in one of the most diverse cities in the country and my medical school’s emergency department has residents and attendings of all backgrounds, with the leadership mirroring this diversity. This isn’t to say I’ve never been exposed to others’ stereotypes. As a member of an all-female trio of my collegiate EMS leadership, I had to convince my male colleagues that a group of women could keep the system  operational. In medical school I’ve had patients request I do not follow them because they did not want to be treated by a terrorist. While these comments irritated me, I was able to move past them and never thought that ‘female’ or ‘Indian’ would be labels that defined my career.

I spent more time looking at the resident facesheets of  the programs I was interested in. Of course there were exceptions, but the majority of faces I saw amongst the faculty, residents and my co-applicants were white; and males often outnumbered females. In fact, I remember a co-applicant who came up to me during a pre-interview social and said ‘I’m so glad I am not the only person of color at this interview!’ I began to ask about diversity at each interview, and most acknowledged that this was an area the program was working on. However one person told me, “I’ll be honest, if diversity is important to you this program probably isn’t for you”. This was an off-hand comment to a question the interviewer was likely not prepared for, and I hope was not truly indicative of the program leadership’s perspective. Nevertheless it was hard to overlook.

After these experiences I was thrilled to hear that Dr. Rebecca Parker, President-Elect of the American College of Emergency Physicians, was making increased diversity in Emergency Medicine one of her primary objectives. And I was honored to be invited to a recent ACEP Diversity Summit. At the Summit I met some incredible leaders in the field, at all stages in their careers and from a multitude of different backgrounds. I heard their personal stories on how their careers had been impacted because of their race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. Common were stories of glass-ceilings, both in the private and the academic world, which made career progression difficult. Others spoke of racism and stereotyping in the workplace. I heard about research and initiatives that have been undertaken at academic programs and private companies around the country to promote inclusion and diversity (and even added a textbook to my “To-Read” list).

Through this experience I caught a glimpse of the struggles that I too may face as my career advances, and heard how others had overcome them. We discussed how diversity in Emergency Medicine will help us improve our cultural competency, and thereby better the care we provide our patients. How corporations with diverse Boards are more successful. How by focusing on diversity, we can encourage more young people to consider careers in STEM, to apply to medical school, and to specialize in Emergency Medicine. We discussed the barriers that currently exist which prevent change, and steps that can be taken to improve the current situation. What struck me most however, was how earnest everyone was to work towards changing the status quo.

I left the Summit with a sense that Dr. Parker, the ACEP Board and the other summit participants truly cared about this issue and that, though it will be a long and difficult road, meaningful change is possible. I also left inspired to make diversity a priority in my own life. I learned that the labels “woman” and “Indian” did not have to be left behind as I work towards becoming the excellent, passionate, and dedicated Emergency Physician I aim to be. I am taking steps to become more aware of my own unconscious biases and to reach out to underclassmen of all backgrounds at my medical school who are interested in the specialty. As President Obama said, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” While I am just embarking on my career in emergency medicine, it is a sentiment I hope remains with me, no matter where my path may lead.