For Shakalah Thompson '21, one of the earliest formative experiences she had as a Boston College student was during her first spring break when she participated in the Bowman AHANA and Intercultural Center’s Magis Civil Rights Immersion Trip, which brings students to sites in Georgia and Alabama connected to the civil rights movement.

The trip was a powerful one that spurred her desire to incorporate social justice into her career.

“My eyes were opened,” recalled Thompson, a sociology major and medical humanities minor in the pre-med program. “I had a pivotal moment, this awakening of [wondering] how exactly am I going to be a ‘woman for others’? How am I going to give back and uplift my community as a physician?”

Shakalah Thompson and her mother

MLK Scholarship winner Shakalah Thompson '21 celebrated the award with her mother Dionne Reid. (Photos by Justin Knight)

The ways in which Thompson has responded to that pivotal moment were recognized last week when she was awarded the University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship, presented annually to a BC junior who has demonstrated superior academic achievement, extracurricular leadership, community service, and involvement with the African American community and African American issues.

“It’s beyond an honor to have won,” said Thompson, who was born in Jamaica and raised in Miami Gardens, Fla. “Knowing I was selected as somebody who reflects the ideas Dr. King had is mind-boggling and heartwarming at the same time. It’s a confirmation of my value as someone who is black and can make an impact on country and the world.”

During her sophomore year, Thompson traveled to the Dominican Republic for a service-learning/immersion trip sponsored by Learning to Learn.

For a native of the Caribbean, the experience in the DR was “very personal and raw,” said Thompson. Seeing people from the same part of the world she and her family came from experience living in less fortunate circumstances caused Thompson to think, “This could have been me. What am I going to do with the fact that it’s not?

“The trip prompted me to think about how exactly I was going to use all the things I have learned and apply that to my career and make the best of the blessings I’ve been given. I want my career to be heavily focused on equity and social justice within the health care system.”

This summer, Thompson will go to Ecuador for BC’s Global Health Perspectives, an intensive four-week program of study on the health care delivery system in the private and public sectors in the South American country.

Thompson freely admits that her first year at BC was difficult. Homesickness, mental health issues, and disparities in her educational background compounded the marginalization and isolation she says she felt as a first-generation college student and a black woman immigrant in STEM.

That is why she is so passionate about STEM and Pre-Health Outreach for AHANA Students, a student organization she co-founded with Chelsey Skette '20 and Yojana Thapa '20 to ensure that STEM or pre-health students of color can get the resources they need to excel. The newly formed group is planning to host a panel of people of color who are professionals in a variety of health fields—an event Thompson notes will demonstrate both representation and the different pathways available to STEM/pre-health students. The organization also hopes to hold a self-care workshop this semester.

"The trip [to the Dominican Republic] prompted me to think about how exactly I was going to use all the things I have learned and apply that to my career and make the best of the blessings I’ve been given. I want my career to be heavily focused on equity and social justice within the health care system."
martin luther king jr scholarship winner shakalah thompson '21

As for Thompson’s own journey, she credits Holly Deak PhD '04, who was a member of Chemistry Professor Marc Snapper’s lab and taught in the Chemistry Department, with helping her through Organic Chemistry. “She is absolutely phenomenal. She is excellent and encouraging and will sit with you to work through problems. She’s always willing to listen.”

Thompson also praised the support she got from Associate Dean and Pre-Health Program Director Rafael Luna, African and African Diaspora Studies Program Assistant Director Richard Paul, and the BAIC staff, especially BAIC Director Michael Davidson, S.J.

Thompson serves as a BAIC Bowman Advocate, facilitating discussions on campus about race and diversity, including outreach to the entire freshman class as a follow-up to the DiversityEdu module all first-year students are required to complete.

For senior year, Thompson is considering doing a Community Research Program seminar through BAIC to look at the effect that lack of representation in health care has had in Massachusetts.

One of the lessons Thompson learned during the Magis Civil Rights trip is that “service doesn’t necessarily mean having to go to a developing country and doing the stereotypical service activity. It can start from right where you are, knowing that there are people around you in need and are going through tough times. You can make a difference in their lives. I think service starts there, with the people that are closest to you.”


Kathleen Sullivan | University Communications | February 2020