Semir Bulle is currently a 3rd year medical student at the University of Toronto (UofT), and is the former Co-President of the Black Medical Student Association (BMSA). Growing up in the Dixon-Rexdale area, Semir was raised in a community filled with newly landed immigrants and refugees which directly motivated his longitudinal commitment to the organization of his community, and an emphasis on the improvement of material conditions of the marginalized. His work within the Ethiopian diaspora has recognized him with the Bikila Foundation award and a position as the executive chair of the Bikila Youth Council. Semir has also co-led the initiative “Mental Health in the Black Community: A Speaker Series” which aims to create spaces for the community to collectively educate themselves, form long lasting partnerships, develop solidarity and create increasingly powerful networks. This has led to a large community support system with several hundred committed members, where resources can be easily disseminated and mobilization can rapidly occur. Additionally, he is the official liaison for the Canadian Doctors’ for protection against guns, and he has strong ties to the zero gun violence movement, which has made Semir an expert correspondent for the Toronto Star, CBC and other news organizations in the city of Toronto.
When did you decide on medicine and what made you want to pursue medicine?
“Growing up in the Dixon-Rexdale area, the majority of my community were newly landed immigrants and refugees. So that being said, I’ve witnessed countless situations in which people would not go to the doctor due to an inability to feel that the doctor could properly understand them and an overall fear that whatever course of action that would need to be taken would be unaffordable. When you live paycheck to paycheck being sick can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and I just don’t think that’s a fair allocation of resources in our society. So that, coupled with my experiences with serving in the hospitals in rural Ethiopia where my parents and family are from have really shaped my view on life, and the importance of doctors to a community, which is what truly made me want to pursue this career.”
Why would you recommend medicine as a career path?
“Medicine is a career where you can make what you want of it. Your interests can really allow you to find a niche and grow into it. But at the same time, it is an extremely taxing field where you spend 10-15 years of your life studying in one way or another. So yes I would recommend it, but please do your research (a.k.a. don’t do it for the money lol)”
What do you think were some of your strengths in your application?
“My application’s main strength was my community service and longitudinal commitment to my community. Just by being a part of my religious organizations, or local groups I would always be involved with what’s going on and that was where my application was different. I had no publications, but I’ve had many jobs and I had decent grades- so I really don’t think I’m anything special.”
What unique challenges do you believe Black and other disadvantaged applicants face compared to the rest of the population? How did you overcome these? Why were there so few Black students at UofT?
“This is clearly an issue that is multifactorial, it stems from communities that have been historically separated by race and then the opportunities in these neighbourhoods differ for their respective members. In Toronto the average low income family makes $32,000 before taxes and Black people, while only being 8% of the city’s population, make up 13% of its poor. This compared to only 3% of Black individuals being considered high income at $102,000 annually. As UofT professor David Hulchanski said “Money buys choice, and people with the most choice are going to choose to live in certain areas”.
“This contributes to the racial disparities in our neighbourhoods and really different standards of life for these people. The plain fact is being a doctor is a high income career, and the majority of students in medical school have a parent or a close family friend who is a doctor. Compare this to the fact that not a single self-identified Black student at UofT has a parent who is more than a PSW or a nurse. Personally, my mom cleaned hotel rooms for a living, and still does. Therefore, because the Black community has been historically poor due to lack of sustainable opportunities, there is a clear connection between the two. There is much more I would love to get into, as I adore this topic and spend much of my time doing research in this field, but that would be much too long at this point.”
UofT has the Black Student Application Program (BSAP), can you explain to readers what it is and how it differs from the normal application program? Is it working?
“The BSAP program is the exact same criteria as the regular application program, only with an added 250 word essay and the promise of at least 1 Black file reviewer. It doesn’t sound like much of a difference, but it really helps knowing you are more likely to have a culturally competent review of your application.”
“To answer if its working – this is the first time in my life that I have had a group of Black peers in university level academia in my life. I went to McMaster and would always have a diverse friend group, but the lack of Black people was always apparent, especially in science. BSAP gave me a sense of community and that my experiences within school were similar to others. UofT has done a very good job of supporting us, which allows us to be free to learn how to become doctors, while still serving the communities we come from and adore.”
You are an active advocate in the community for many causes, what would you say to any reader about advocacy, its importance, and how they can get involved if they are interested.
“I think the idea of doing ‘advocacy’ really has to begin with the lens in which you see the world. Due to seeing the material conditions around me growing up in the west end of Toronto, I spent a long time trying to figure out why things were the way they are. Long story short, I did a lot of research into the purpose of life by studying the history of culture and religion, and I came out with the common thread of ‘humanity’. The idea that life in of and itself is intrinsically valuable. When I look at any issue in society now, I try to see it in a way that will assist the most people.”
“Additionally, there is a real pressure in medicine to just do any type of advocacy to put it on your resume, because that’s what we’re told will make our application look better. But, I want to tell anyone reading this that the true enjoyment from advocacy comes from really knowing the ‘why’ behind your actions. Everyone’s answer to ‘why’ can be different, but the intrinsic motivation makes everything so much easier. This has allowed me to participate activities such as: Creating a Black votes matter event, investing in my Ethiopian community via the Bikila Foundation, and creating countless interactions with students who might need mentorship. Advocacy is something that I hope all of us will participate in one way or another, but doing it in a way that is sustainable and truly brings internal happiness is essential to being able to see the long-term change we all hope to see down the line.”
How was the transition into medical school? What was the most difficult shift for you?
“I would say it has been some of the best times of my life. Everyone has been friendly and there is a real sense of community when it comes to the faculty of medicine. Before this, I worked in a clinical research lab during my application year, so I really took that time to re-center myself. But in medical school, you know most of the people in your class and get to socialize frequently, while getting some of the best education in the world. So I’m really lucky to be enjoying my time here.”
If you could go back to when you were in undergrad, would you do anything differently?
“Not at all. I made a lot of mistakes, and through a weird mix of luck and skill I made it here. Live your life to the fullest, in the end it really will make you a better MD candidate.”
If you did not become a doctor, what else did you consider doing?
“I would definitely be a social worker/union organizer because I really do believe in community building and growth.”
What specialty/specialties in medicine are you currently interested in/exploring?
“I’m interested in psychiatry because human connection and really trying to understand people is the most interesting thing to me.”
As the past co-president of the BMSA do you have any messages you would like to send out to readers?
“The BMSA is a place for anyone who sees the injustices in our society as unacceptable, and part of our duty as future physicians to get involved to the best of our capabilities. It is just a fact that Black and Indigenous populations are some of the most vulnerable within our healthcare system, and we believe that there needs to be a constant understanding of some of the perils that everyday people face. From our group, we have even had members go off and create the Filipino and Iranian medical associations, because our goal is lifting up the marginalized from any community and we can do more together than we ever could alone. Our overall goal is to try to make people understand that racism and poverty are intertwined. The fact that 46% of Canadians can’t afford a $200 emergency (1), cannot be uncoupled from the fact that Black people are overrepresented within this socioeconomic group (2). So we as the BMSA try to make this as clear as possible in our mandate and welcome anyone who sees the world like we do.”