TORONTO -- A University of Toronto student aims to inspire Tuesday as the first standalone Black woman to give the Faculty of Medicine’s valedictorian speech, and the first woman to do so in 14 years.

Chika Oriuwa, the child of Nigerian immigrants, always knew she wanted to be a physician but didn’t have many examples to look up to.

“Growing up, I never saw a doctor that looked like me,” Oriuwa told CTV News on Monday.

Oriuwa said she felt like she would have to work harder than her peers to become a doctor when she began her studies at the University of Toronto four years ago – the only Black student in a class of nearly 260 medical students.

“After my undergraduate experience, in which I was also the only Black student, I was very much looking forward to be able to join a medical school, especially at Toronto, which is the epicentre of diversity in Canada, to join a medical school where I could find individuals with a shared identity and shared solidarity, and so obviously, it was incredibly shocking to not necessarily have that when I went to U of T,” she explained to CTV’s Your Morning on Tuesday.

In her studies and training, Oriuwa said she encountered racism, including one instance at a hospital when she was mistaken for a janitor. The med student channeled these experiences into spoken word poetry. In one piece, she says “when I step into this white coat, I am more Black than ever.” 

Her experiences as a young Black student of medicine also pushed her to activism, hoping she could instigate changes that would diversify the medical school student body and make it better for future Black students to study. 

At the University of Toronto, Oriuwa got involved in the Black Medical Student Association as well as the Black Student Application Program, which aims to boost the number of Black medical students. 

The program has made progress since Oriuwa was the only Black student in her first year of the program. In the fall’s incoming class, there will be 24 Black students beginning med school – the largest cohort of Black medical students in Canadian history, according to Oriuwa. 

“When I see that so many students are now coming into the University of Toronto in the class of 2024, it brings my heart so much joy,” she said.

While some progress has been made, Oriuwa still faces some challenges. 

“On social media, I've had individuals tell me that I didn't deserve to be valedictorian, that me being valedictorian was simply a political move on behalf of the institution,” Oriuwa said. 

Her groundbreaking speech comes at a historic moment, after a week of protests across North America protesting police violence against Black citizens spurred by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. 

“I was speechless. I was enraged. I was disturbed. And yet, I was not surprised,” she said of Floyd’s death.

Oriuwa said the online bigotry and racism she encountered regarding her valedictorian title was another example of how anti-Black racism is so pervasive and hard to escape.

“That’s why it’s important for me specifically to align myself with the community, especially in times of civil unrest,” she explained.

When her speech is streamed for her classmates later on Tuesday, Oriuwa said she hopes it will let them and any other listeners know that they have the ability to define themselves.

“If you have a strong sense of conviction in who you are, what your purpose is, what it is that you will and will not tolerate, that will allow you to be able to navigate the difficulties in a more meaningful way,” she said. 

“I just hope that all individuals who listen are able to walk away with that idea to not allow anyone else to write your story for you or to inaccurately define you.”

Her graduation speech also comes amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which she and her classmates will battle on the frontlines once they begin their residencies. 

“I’m definitely nervous, but I’m so excited to finally be a doctor,” Oriuwa says.


A previous version of this story stated that Chika Oriuwa was the first black female valedictorian in the history of the University of Toronto's Faculty of Medicine. She was the second, following Kristine Whitehead in 1992.