Life for me started in a small town in southwestern New Brunswick, Canada, on the border of Maine. This community, at that time, was fairly homogeneous, with people being separated only by religion or language. New Brunswick is the only bilingual province in Canada. I attended college at the University of New Brunswick, where several foreign exchange students were enrolled, but nursing students like me were so immersed in classwork that we didn’t socialize much outside our group of students.
After college, I moved to Montreal, Quebec, and it was definitely a culture shock. Montreal is a rich mixture of cultures and languages. I had to immerse myself in French, because 14 years of studying French in school still did not prepare me to carry full conversations in the language. I had to pass a French proficiency test before I could work in an “English” hospital (the quotes are because throughout the community, the Royal Victoria Hospital was regarded as English, but it depended on who was working some days as to which language the shift change oral report would be given in). Many of our staff were immigrants with medical degrees, and many times, the staff were from a particular country and they would talk amongst themselves in their native language.
After working on a kidney transplant and dialysis unit for almost two years, I decided that research was a happier path for me to take. I spent nearly six years as a study coordinator before moving into the clinical research industry and becoming a CRA. The time in Montreal exposed me to so many different cultures and truly opened my perspective on my place in society. Walking through the streets and the various cultural communities, I truly felt like I was taking a mini vacation to other parts of the world.
Eventually, I took a transfer from Canada to the US with the pharmaceutical company I was working for, moving from a Phase III CRA into the early development space. While in the US, I’ve lived in New Jersey, Illinois, Kansas, and now Missouri. I thought that I had expanded my world view in Montreal, but that did not fully prepare me for the culture shock of living in the US. In NJ, I realized that you could seemingly identify the race of the person stopped on the side of the road by the number of police cars present. This was a curious observation for me.
In 2001, my life changed forever by having my only child, a son. At the time, I was working for a small niche CRO that eventually was purchased by PRA in 2005. When my son was not quite three, we were outside blowing bubbles, and he looked at me and said, “Mom, Bambi is brown, Bambi’s mom is brown, I am brown, why are you not brown?” You see, my son is biracial, and even though to me he is simply my son, to others, he does not look like me. Everything I had read up to that point said that kids don’t notice race until they are about five, but clearly this was something I was going to have to work through with him earlier. My philosophy had always been that people are people, but now my outlook was changing vastly. I had to learn to look through his lens and try to understand what he was experiencing.
At nine years old, he was on a baseball team, and he was the only non-white person on the team. He had grown his hair out for about a year and recently had his hair braided. He was very proud of it and I bought him an Under Armour skull cap in matching team colors to keep his hair in place when he took his ball cap and helmet on and off. One of the parents went over to him during practice before the game and snatched the skull cap off his head and said, “We don’t wear those things in baseball.” After that tournament, my son asked me to cut off all his hair.
In 2012, Trayvon Martin was killed in a high-profile case in Florida. I tried not to have all the media coverage on at home, but he heard about it at school and from his friends. My 11-year-old son looked at me and said, “Mom, do I need to worry about people killing me because of the color of my skin?” That was a conversation I never expected to have.
At 15, he was very reluctant to get his driving permit. With all the media coverage in 2016, he was scared about driving. We had to have the conversation about what to do if you get stopped while driving. This past year following George Floyd’s death has been very challenging. The protests, listening to everyone give their opinion. He and I have had some very long and heartbreaking conversations. If you haven’t lived it, it’s difficult to understand.
Throughout all this, I have been so fortunate to have the opportunity to work with people all over the world. PRA Health Sciences is truly a global company, and my teams are located everywhere. During the shutdown in March – May 2020, I think that global interaction helped me to appreciate not only how the pandemic was affecting people here in the US, but the impact and effect it was having on people in so many other countries. Talking to them about their families and children and hearing what they are experiencing has helped me fully appreciate our global involvement.
It is so exciting and gratifying to work for PRA – a company that I feel shares my values, provides a working environment where I feel welcome and appreciated for who I am, and promotes and fosters an inclusive climate for all.
What is the takeaway? When you see me, the white, English-speaking project director, you have no idea that my son is brown, that I am an immigrant, and that my perspective might be unique. I am still learning every day, since I cannot fully understand what it is like to be a person of color and my experience as an immigrant is not necessarily the same as others. While I may look and sound like an average American, I have my own story. There is more to all of us than physical appearance. I think everyone should take the time to look deeper at those who come into our lives.
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