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Dr. Cedric Bright '81

Dr. Cedric Bright ’81 on his journey from EHS student to UNC- Chapel Hill School of Medicine’s Assistant Dean of Admissions.
As the assistant dean of admissions for the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Medicine since 2012, Cedric reads over 1,000 applications and interviews some 100 candidates every year. They receive well over 6,000 applications annually, from which they will enroll a class of under 200 first-year medical students. In addition to this work, Cedric runs UNC's medical education development summer program, a 9-week immersion program started in 1974 "designed to increase opportunities in the health professions for individuals who demonstrate educational promise and commitment to a health career but who have lackd the opportunity in the past to move toward their professional goals." 

The program, which accepts 80 students every summer, has enrolled almost 3,000 students, with almost 90 percent being accepted to medical or dental school, and four out of every five entering the field.

“My role here, in running this program, is to help students realize they have multiple ways to achieve their goals, to help them keep their dreams alive if they’re willing to work toward them,” Cedric says.

His job and mission, he explains, is to be a mentor to those less familiar with the med school ropes.

“A mentor is very important in helping students from cer- tain backgrounds understand the minefields they’re trying to go through, and redirecting students when they get infor- mation — either directly or indirectly — that they can’t achieve their dreams,” he says. “There is more than just one way, and more than just one door you can walk through, to become a doctor if you want it badly enough and are willing to work for it. But most kids don’t know that, and they give up.

“My job is to convince them that your dream is only over when you give it up.”

BEGINNING ON ONE HILL...

Looking back on the life experiences that led him from The Holy Hill to Chapel Hill, Cedric recognizes that he came by this desire to mentor others thanks in large part to his own mentors from Episcopal and his higher education. Even as a high school student, he was drawn to science and the thought of a medical career.

“I was pushing myself as a student in my science courses at Episcopal,” he says. “Between biology and chemistry, I liked chemistry more. My teacher, Mr. (Joe) Shelor ’52 was also my football coach, and he was always supportive of me and whatever I wanted to do. He and Mr. (Tony) Shaver, who was my basketball coach, were both instrumental in giving me the confidence and saying I could do it. I did well in AP Chemistry. Mr. Shelor wrote my recommendation for Brown, which must’ve been a good one, because that’s part of the reason I got in.”

Cedric’s college experience had ups and downs, often con- nected to how seriously he took his work, versus when the opportunities for too much fun drew him away from it. He ended up graduating with a major in film (“Brown’s way of offering a communications major”) and then took a year off working as a paralegal to try and improve his MCAT scores.

“I took the paralegal job because it was the only job I could find that allowed me to wear a shirt and tie,” Cedric explains. “You don’t think about it a lot when you’re that age, but wearing a shirt and tie, it kind of sets you up for what you want to do in life. It was a constant reminder that I had to get really serious about going to medical school, buckle down, study harder, do better on my scores. And it worked. I was able to gain admission to UNC.”

In the summer before he began medical school, in 1986, he attended the same Medical Education Development pro- gram he now runs. The program’s new assistant director, Larry Keith, became a vital mentor to young Cedric. “Mr. Keith made it clear: from that point on he was going to be there for me and the other students to help us get through medical school. And he was. He kept that promise.”

The hardest thing about med school, according to Cedric, isn’t about a lack of knowledge or ability; it’s about manag- ing such a high volume of information in a timely fashion. “In high school, you’re drinking from a water fountain. College is more like a garden hose. If you go to graduate school, they put a little nozzle on that hose to add pressure. By the time you get to medical school or law school, you’re drinking out of a fire hydrant.”

Cedric adapted and eventually thrived, completing his res- idency and taking a job running a clinic in Rhode Island. The clinic was his first window into serving as a mentor, as students in Brown’s medical school would shadow him at the clinic. While there, he published a paper in the Journal of the National Medical Association on perceived barriers and biases by race and gender in medical education. Soon after, he found himself at Duke University, assisting with minority recruitment and retention, and developing a community clinic where the students could gain valuable practice while helping those who could not otherwise afford it.

He had achieved the goal he had set for himself as a young college undergrad with his first clinic at 28, and he devel- oped and grew it over a decade. “Ever since then, I’ve had to keep asking, what’s next? And the answer has always involved serendipity.”

…AND RETURNING TO ANOTHER HILL

In 2010, Larry Keith died from cancer at 58. The man whose mentorship helped Cedric prepare for, and succeed in, medical school, had served over 30 years at UNC advo- cating and supporting minority students looking to enter and thrive in the medical profession. He earned national recognition and awards for his commitment and efforts. The words “pioneer,” “hero,” and “unwavering dedication” were just some of the accolades included in the reports of his death.

When the summer program lost funding for a couple of years, Mr. Keith asked Cedric to return and advocate for its re-funding, and his efforts helped keep the program alive until it found more grant funding. Upon Mr. Keith’s death, Cedric was asked to replace his mentor, which he did while understanding that “you can’t ever really replace a legend.”

“I AM A VOICE OF DIFFERENCE”

One of Cedric’s passions and goals is to increase African American representation in all medical schools and the med- ical profession as a whole. Fewer black students currently apply to or enroll in medical school than in 1978, and the percentage of black students per capita was higher at the turn of the 20th Century than well into the 21st, he explains. While African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans comprise more than one-quarter of the nation’s population, they represent only six percent of the nation’s doctors and an even smaller percentage of dentists. Most glaring, is that fewer than three percent of the nation’s med school faculty are black.

“It can be difficult for some people to appreciate or under- stand the challenge, being in a school with so few others who look like you, with only one or two of your teachers who look like you. It can be a very isolating experience,” Cedric says. His aim is to try, one student and one encoun- ter at a time, to reduce that sense of isolation while being a resource to all of UNC’s med students.

“What I hope comes across is yeah, I have a niche and a commitment to increasing the number of African American doctors in our ranks, but I also have a bigger responsibility,” he says. “A part of me being a faculty member is to be a voice of difference. My majority students also know they can come and talk to me, and hear my opinions, and have an opportunity to see things or understand things from a different perspective.”

“NOT JUST AN EHS GRADUATE”

In January, Cedric returned to the Hill to participate in the School’s first-ever MLK Day Symposium. He was one of seven African American alumni spanning almost three decades who participated in a panel discussion about their experiences and reflections from life on the Hill.

“I have to commend (Head of School) Charley (Stillwell) and (Director of Alumni and Parent Programs) Rick (Wilcox) for bringing us back like that, for the School to be willing to have that type of frank and honest discussion,” he says. Cedric references his 35th Reunion last summer where he and Dr. Juergen Taylor ’81 participated in the School’s oral history project and were given the opportunity to speak frankly on camera about their experiences, the good and the bad, as “a cathartic event” for them.

As difficult as it was being black at Episcopal in the late ’70s and early ’80s, he worries about whether today’s black teen- agers have been falsely lulled into a bit of complacency. “A lot of them think they’re living in some post-racial generation, and I worry that it just takes a few bad experiences to put their world in shambles. We have to be able to redevelop a resilience in our young people to understand that it’s not what they call you, it’s what you will answer to that matters.”

Cedric’s experiences in the past year have helped him turn a corner, mentally and emotionally, with Episcopal.

“I have to tell you, I’m excited,” he says. “I’m excited to be part of The High School again. I count it all good that I have this opportunity to reconnect with the people who are there now, and with my classmates, and to become an Old Boy. Because up until this year, I was just a graduate of Episcopal. I didn’t really feel like I was part of the Old Boy network. Now I do, and I want to be a resource for these students who are graduating from Episcopal, so they can look at me and say, ‘Hey, he’s an Old Boy, and I can go to him and talk about his path and journey, and maybe he can help me on my way, too.’ That’s what I’m looking forward to. That’s what I’m excited about.”
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