When Zaria Rayes, a second-year student in the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV, talks about entering the field of medicine, one of the world’s most respected professions, she emphasizes that what can go a long way toward making it happen is a solid educational foundation. The building blocks for that: Attentive parents or caregivers, passionate teachers and professors, and honest and candid mentors, all of whom, she says, ultimately help make you feel comfortable in your own skin, a decided advantage in facing both medical school academic rigor and a subsequent career in medicine; neither is for the faint of heart.
Rayes is one of four children of Bruce and Renee Rayes. Her mother was the first in her family to graduate from college, and earned two UNLV degrees, ’88 BSBA Accounting and ’13 BS Hospitality Administration. Before retiring, she worked as a financial analyst. Her father, an avionics technician who pilots trusted to keep their planes airborne, retired after 20 years in the U.S. Air Force, though he did work later for a while at Nellis Air Force Base in a civilian capacity.
For as long as she can remember, Rayes says her parents were involved in her literacy activities, ensuring that she had the kind of educational foundation that would allow her to open the doors to a meaningful future, not find them closed. One of her fondest memories was sitting on the laps of either her mother or father as they read to her. She loved the give and take with her parents as they read, talking about the books and what they meant. “It made reading so much fun,” she says. (The Landmark “Becoming a Nation of Readers” report from 1985 concluded that “the single most important activity for building knowledge for their eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children). Rayes remembers that a preschool teacher gave her parents an account of the day that they cherished: “You know, Zaria picked up a book today that she couldn’t put down.”
It wasn’t long before Zaria’s parents were taking her to the library and she was reading on her own. “Some of my earliest preschool/early elementary school memories revolve around reading chapter books and visiting libraries often to exchange books once I found a book series that I enjoyed.” She read and reread the Junie B. Jones and American Girl series of books. That love for reading has never abated. Over the years reading about prominent African-American historical figures (“people who look like me”) has provided inspiration for her to become whatever she wants to become. Rayes was intrigued, for example, by how Phillis Wheatley was enslaved, yet still managed to become one of the best-known poets in pre-19th century America; and how Madame C. J. Walker, who was orphaned and started working as a domestic servant at age 10, is recorded as the first self-made millionaire in America. “Reading gives you the power to dream big dreams,” Rayes says.
Today, when Rayes isn’t reading medical texts, she finds herself reading Jerome Groopman’s, How Doctors Think, a book that analyzes how physicians make diagnostic and treatment decisions, and how the process can be improved upon. “Fascinating,” says Rayes.
Rayes also credits her parents with realizing that her neighborhood elementary public school wasn’t challenging her when she was a child. Deciding she needed a more exacting education, they entered a lottery process used by Clark County School District (CCSD) for parents who wish to place their child in a demanding magnet school. Ultimately, Rayes was able to transfer in second grade to Mabel Hoggard Elementary, which has a focus on math and science enrichment. “If my parents had not recognized my desire to be challenged academically, I may not have had access to the resources that propelled my academic development,” she says. At Hoggard, she worked late into the night on science fair projects that ultimately won her top awards. “I really enjoyed designing experiments and carrying them out… I have always been an inquisitive person, which had a lot to do with my love for science.” At Hoggard, she says she was blessed to have good teachers, men and women passionate about education. Dr. Robin Maglicco, a math specialist, holds a special place in her heart. “I remember really enjoying her teaching style and her ability to teach math concepts that were challenging, and at a higher level of difficulty for our grade level.”
Her educational foundation, she says, continued to be built solidly at CCSD’s Hyde Park Middle School. She says it carried out its stated mission to “nurture and enhance students’ scientific and mathematical inquiry, as they develop a depth of knowledge, love of learning and level of self-confidence beyond their years.” Always an honor student, she attended two high schools, Advanced Technologies Academy and Shadow Ridge High School, where she says she valued taking courses that prepared her for college. She also found the time to play the piano and also the flute, which she played in the Shadow Ridge marching band.
Throughout her adolescence, her parents emphasized the importance of experiential learning during the summer, where she could learn things not found in a classroom. Her interest in medicine, she says, began to solidify during high school when she volunteered to help patients during the summer at the North Las Vegas VA Medical Center. That interest hardened when she was one of 20 students chosen to attend a summer leadership academy at the Texas Medical Center, and was selected to attend a summer enrichment program at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “Over the years, I had come to realize how disproportionately few black physicians there are, but during these summers it made me realize just how much I wanted to help change that and help Nevada overcome its shortage of physicians. She notes that studies have shown that black patients have better health outcomes and routinely agree to more – and more invasive – health tests and interventions when they’re seen by black physicians. Years of discrimination in the field of medicine, researchers say, have often caused African Americans to be distrustful of white physicians.
As she prepared to leave high school – during the school year she worked part-time in the county library – Rayes made a decision that she says became critical to her having the necessary foundation for medical school. She chose to go to Hampton University, a private, historically black college or university (HBCU) and research institution in Hampton, Virginia, where she graduated magna cum laude. HBCU colleges and universities were founded in the 1860s to provide black youths with higher education. These youths were largely prevented from attending established colleges and universities due to racial discrimination. A long list of notable alumni in business, politics and government, health care, technology, engineering, mathematics, sociology, and humanities at Hampton include: Booker T. Washington, civil rights leader, adviser to American presidents and the first leader of what would become Tuskegee University; Mary Jackson, the first black female engineer for NASA who was featured in the film Hidden Figures, and the namesake for the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters in Washington D.C.; Rashida Jones, the first African-American to lead a major cable news network (MSNBC); Sylvia Trent-Adams, first African-American nurse to serve as Surgeon General of the United States; Charles Phillips, former president of the Oracle Corporation; Dorothy Maynor, the first black American to sing at a U.S. presidential inauguration; Wanda Sykes, Emmy Award-winning actress and comedian.
“When I visited there, I felt right at home, so comfortable,” says Rayes. “They have a great history of training professionals and being supportive of their students. And they really uphold a standard of excellence…While attending school in Las Vegas, I was often the only African American student in several of my classes and had few teachers that looked like me. It wasn’t always easy.”
At Hampton, she said college professors Dr. Abiodun Adibi and Dr. Shawn Dash, both in the biology department, worked hard to make sure she was ready for medical school. At the school, she also joined the Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) Sorority, Inc., the first collegiate sorority established for African-American collegiate women. That affiliation, she says, was critical because she was paired with another AKA member, an internal medicine physician in Maryland, Bonita Coe, MD, who became her closest mentor. Rayes says she advised her honestly and candidly throughout her pre-medical tenure, suggesting how best to apply to medical school and prepare for the medical school admission test. “I still cherish her advice and our conversations as a medical student.”
On a half-tuition scholarship to medical school, Rayes said she chose to go to the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine for several reasons, one of which is the shortage of physicians in Nevada. She also says that the medical school stands apart from other institutions based on its innovative academic curriculum, emphasis on student wellness, and its involvement in the local community. “I love that students are integrated into the community by participating in the Population Health/EMT course during the first weeks of their medical school journey. I also appreciate that students can continue to serve the community by volunteering with local service organizations. And in my clinical rotations, I knew that I would be able to train with a diverse growing patient population by staying here in Las Vegas.”
Though she still has time to decide, Rayes is seriously thinking about specializing in pediatrics.
“I would like to help build a solid foundation of health in children,” says Rayes, now president of a Student National Medical Association chapter at the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine. “Children’s health is the foundation of lifelong health.”