Lash Nolen is “hungry for justice” and “hungry to see my people win.”
Most people call her "Lash," but LaShyra Nolen’s name is hardly the only unique thing about her. Last year, she became the first black woman ever elected as class president of Harvard Medical School (HMS).
Born in Compton, California, and educated in Los Angeles, Lash grew up with big dreams and equally daunting challenges. Despite not seeing black women leadership reflected in society in general, she found inspiration in the strength of the women around her. Lash’s mom had her when she was only 18 years old. But as a single mom, she got her masters, while working numerous jobs to support Lash’s dreams.
"Mom pursued life with grit and a desire to win. She would tell me: 'I’ll see you at the top,'" Lash tells Teen Vogue.In third grade, Lash won first place in a school science fair for a project that studied the patterns of fish. After this, she told her grandma she wanted to become a brain surgeon-slash-astronaut.
"My grandma would tell me that whatever I wanted to do, we were gonna make it happen," Lash recalls. "After telling her I wanted to become a surgeon, she would tell me to protect my hands."
Today, Lash is a Fulbright Scholar, activist, and an emerging leader in medicine.
Lash spoke to Teen Vogue about this moment in Harvard’s history and the advice she has for black girls everywhere.
Teen Vogue: What does it mean to you to be the first black woman elected as class president of HMS?
Lash Nolen: For me it means opportunity — opportunity in the sense that it will allow me to create a pipeline for others who look like me to hold positions of leadership at Harvard Medical School. When applying to HMS, I didn't see people who looked like me in student council or positions of leadership at that level. I think it is important to show that black people can also be the face of a university.
TV: How do you use student council leadership to make a sustainable impact?
LN: I try to use my resources and platform intentionally. For example, this year with our budget, we decided to create an annual community outreach event for youth at local elementary schools for Halloween. Right now we are working on a project that will highlight members of our community who are custodial staff, cafeteria workers, security guards — the people that make our community whole, with portraits that will be displayed in the main atrium at HMS. By doing things like this, we’re able to sustainably change the narrative of who belongs on the walls and on the grounds of Harvard Medical School. To me, that answer will always be our community.
TV: What advice would you give to young girls of color pursuing their wildest dreams?
LN: Go get it. Our society has a way of implicitly reminding young black girls what they cannot achieve and what they cannot be, while explicitly giving the green light to white men. For those same reasons I almost didn't apply to HMS. It wasn't until my mentors told me that I was capable of being a student at a place like this. And there are so many young girls out there who are excellent and deserve access to opportunity, but won't take the leap because society tells them that it's not for them. So no matter how crazy it might sound, no matter if someone in your family has done it or not, just go get it, because you miss 100% of the shots you don't take.
TV: How have you personally dealt with moving through the largely white, male-dominated world of science and medicine?
LN: I know myself and I know my history. Over the past couple of years, I have been doing a lot of unlearning and investigative research on systemic racism and the hidden contributions of my people to our society. This has given me a great deal of strength. When I walk into a room, no matter where I am, I know the strength of my people and how much they are the reason why these spaces even exist.
TV: What does being a student from Compton at Harvard Medical School mean to you?
LN: My mom raised me as a single mother. My grandmother is the most kindhearted and giving human I know. The city of Compton is one of the most resilient in the world. Growing up and watching them struggle and work so hard to give me what I had in my life, I couldn’t help but do everything in my power to make them proud. I feel like Compton made me scrappy. I’m hungry for opportunity, I'm hungry for justice, I'm hungry to see my people win. So, when you put someone like me at a place like HMS, I’m going to do whatever it takes so make that vision a reality.
TV: What is your vision for the future of black women in leadership?
LN: My dream is for black women in leadership to get the recognition, compensation, and opportunities they deserve. It breaks my heart to see brilliant, capable, black women in medicine not get tenure, or not be considered for promotions. One can’t help but wonder if they were white male[s], would the outcome be different? So, I guess my dream is for these women to be seen, celebrated, and recognized for their greatness at the same level as those around them. Once we do that, young black girls will know that they can too, because you can’t be what you can’t see.
TV: Who are your role models and how have they impacted your life?
LN: Off the top, my mom, always. She is easily the strongest person I know. She's been the best example of the woman, leader, and mother I want to be in the future. Then I have to say Serena Williams, because she goes hard every time, no matter what her critics say. Even when she falls, she rises and ascends even higher. And of course, she's from Compton! Then it’s Ida B. Wells, because she spoke the truth even when it put her life in danger. And that's the level of conviction that I want to have behind my purpose in life. And Michelle Obama is elegance and brilliance personified. The way that she handled scrutiny and racism during her time as first lady, and even still found a way to make a profound impact in her role, is so inspiring to me. If I ever decide on a career in politics, her spirit is the one that I would like to embody.
TV: What political change is necessary for communities like yours to bounce back from historic injustices that continue to impact their health and human rights?
LN: Many of the illnesses that we see in clinics and hospitals across the country are symptoms of racism. At the very inception of this country, black people did not have access to the privileges of owning land, accessing health care or adequate housing. We continue to see systemic racism manifest through policies from the federal to the local levels, which is the reason we have health disparities today. So, I think the only way that my community will truly have sustainable, positive, health outcomes, is through our society's reckoning with the systemic and historical wrongs committed against black people. This could manifest as anti-racism training in medical schools all the way to residency. This could manifest as reparations. This could be economic investment in communities that have been violently impacted by our country's history of redlining. There are many ways that we can approach this, but Band-Aid solutions will not be enough.
TV: What role did failure play in your education?
LN: I applied to 10 colleges and was rejected from all but three. I failed my first chemistry exam in college. I retook the SAT three times. But I always knew who I was, who I was becoming, and who I wanted to be. There were so many moments in my life when I felt like my potential wasn’t matching my outcomes. And there are going to be many moments in my life where I will feel that again. But going through failure taught me how to be resilient, and the key to resilience is always remembering to stand back up when life knocks you down.