“As you climb this ladder in life always reach back to lift someone else up,” was a part of Kawan Swain’s, MD, message to Bertie High School’s graduating class. “I also talked about fear. Especially for me, and just like them, coming from a rural town there is a fear of success, there is a fear of failure, a fear of disappointing someone, but you cannot let that fear eclipse your potential.”
On June 11, Dr. Swain stood in front of high school seniors during their graduation ceremony just like he had 21 years ago as valedictorian of Bertie High School’s 2001 graduating class. A lot has changed for him between these speeches. Dr. Swain is now an assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Nephrology and Hypertension and director of the Fresenius Dialysis Center of Mebane, but he still, and always will, remember his roots.
Bertie County is in a rural northeastern part of North Carolina. The median household income is $35,042 and 14% of residents aged 25 or older have a bachelor’s degree, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“My parents were high school educated,” Dr. Swain said. “The people who I knew that were college educated were our teachers, lawyers in town, or those who had other professional roles. People go to work and take care of their families the best way they know how.”
During his speech Dr. Swain emphasized how your journey to a goal is often more important than the outcome.
“For my life, I look at everything that I went through,” Dr. Swain said. “With the odds stacked against me, not only because of where I come from, rural North Carolina, but I’m also a Black male. We know that a lot of Black males don’t end up in medicine. I think we make up about 2.6% of doctors and that number is around the same as it was in 1940. So, some of the challenges I faced are challenges that they will also face, there’s really no big difference.”
Although medical school had been on Dr. Swain’s agenda since he was a kid, he didn’t know exactly how to get there. His teachers at Bertie High School had a significant impact on the trajectory of his medical career early on. Now, Dr. Swain wants to be that role model for those graduates sitting in a row listening as he left them with five things to remember as they transition to their next phase in life.
“Be happy, always make sure you are happy,” Dr. Swain said. “Number two, have fun. Yes, you have to work hard, but you need to make sure you have fun as well. Number three was honor, to always honor and respect yourself. Number four was home to never forget from where you’ve come because Bertie County is our foundation, and you use that to build upon. And last but not least, was to give back. As you as you climb this ladder of life, always reach back to lift someone else up.”