PHOTO BY SCOTT EISEN
Former Surgeon General Dr. Antonia Novello speaks to students at Collins Middle School in Salem.
By BRIDGET TURCOTTE
SALEM — Dr. Antonia Novello, the first woman and Hispanic Surgeon General for the United States, spent an hour inspiring a group of about 50 middle schoolers Monday.
“Never pay attention to the ones who put you down,” Novello told a group at Collins Middle School. “The best revenge is success.
“Climb, climb, climb and grow bigger and better than the ones who said you cannot make it to the top. But when climbing, don’t ever forget the values of your community or the values that your parents taught you.”
The gathering kicked off a week of events with the 14th Surgeon General of the United States, hosted by Salem State University and the Association of Latino Professionals for America.
During her three-and-a-half years as U.S. Surgeon General under former President George H. W. Bush and President Bill Clinton, Novello, who was born in Puerto Rico, focused on the health of young people, women and minorities. She worked on issues including under-age drinking; smoking; drug abuse; childhood immunization; injury prevention; AIDS, especially among women and adolescents; and improved health care for Hispanics and other minorities.
“I remember saying, if I fail, it will be a failure for generations of women and Hispanics behind me,” she said.
Two other women have since filled the role. M. Joycelyn Elders served as Surgeon General for one year from 1993 to 1994, and Regina M. Benjamin served from 2009 to 2013.
Novello went on to work as the New York State Health Commissioner and was responsible for disaster management following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. She detailed her experience to her attentive audience.
“I learned more in that job than I’ve ever learned in any job, including Surgeon General,” Novello said.
The students were engrossed by her story and engaged with questions following her presentation. They found ways to relate to her hardships, which made them appreciate her success all the more.
Justin Sapozhnik, an eighth grader of Russian and Ukrainian heritage, said he often bears the brunt of jokes about communism and other harmful stereotypes.
“Her story felt relatable,” said Sapozhnik, 13. “It wasn’t just some boring speech. It was interesting to hear how she overcame stereotypes against her. People have set stereotypes against me because I’m Russian. They say ‘oh are you a communist? Do you drink a lot of vodka?’ The communist thing ended over a fourth of a century ago. I don’t know why they say it to me.”
Novello’s inspiration came from being ill much of her own childhood, which caused her to spend a lot of time in the hospital, surrounded by doctors and nurses.
She received her Bachelor’s degree from the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras and her medical degree from the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine at San Juan. She completed an internship and residency in nephrology at the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor, a fellowship in the Department of Internal Medicine, and spent a year on a fellowship with the Department of Pediatrics at Georgetown University.
But she didn’t tell anyone about her interest in medicine until after she took her initial tests and was accepted to medical school
“I didn’t tell anyone in case I failed,” she said.
She also told the students that they had to fail before they could succeed. If they couldn’t overcome failure, they couldn’t overcome success, she said.
On several occasions, her name was listed as Antonio rather than Antonia. She took advantage of being mistaken as a man. She told the students men were always better to study with than the women because they didn’t always take her as a threat and were willing to help her study. She advised the children not to spend time with anyone who would hold them back.
Superintendent of Salem Public Schools Margarita Ruiz, who was also born in Puerto Rico, told the students that they all had the potential to do something great with their lives.
“I hope you use this opportunity to see someone who is in a leadership role and have an example of a woman, who is also a minority, and has gone through the ranks,” Ruiz said. “You’ve all stepped up to student government and in that you’ve stepped up to be leaders. If Dr. Novello can do it, you can do it. All of you have the ability to be the very best that you can be for yourself.”
Novello will give six more talks through the remainder of the week, including two at Salem State today at 4:30 and 5:30 p.m. at the Ellison Campus Center.
Bridget Turcotte can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @BridgetTurcotte