Date May 10, 2023
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In student address, Brown medical school grad to reflect on openness, flexibility and ‘learning loosely’

At the Commencement ceremony for Warren Alpert Medical School’s Class of 2023, John Johnson hopes to bolster his fellow graduates’ confidence in themselves as physicians, teachers and leaders.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — During the first and second years of medical school, the majority of a student's time is spent in class. But during years three and four, they spend most of their days in hospitals, observing physicians and gaining hands-on experience with patients.

This less rigidly structured time presents ample opportunity for education and skill development, said John Johnson, a soon-to-graduate fourth-year medical student at Brown University — especially if students are open and receptive.

“You’re more reliant on yourself to decide what and how you're going learn,” Johnson said. “Being in that environment, during my third year, I started to develop this idea about ‘learning loosely:’ There’s something to learn from every situation, negative and positive, whether or not the lessons are stated outright.”

This realization was a lesson of its own, Johnson said, and one that he will share with his fellow newly minted M.D.s at the Warren Alpert Medical School ceremony on Sunday, May 28, during Commencement and Reunion Weekend. His address is titled “Becoming More of Ourselves.”

Brown’s program in medicine celebrates 50 years of impact this year, but the prominent speech during the ceremony builds on a 255-year Brown University tradition of elevating student voices at Commencement. Graduating students will also take lead speaking roles at the weekend’s University Ceremony, as well as events for master’s and Ph.D. graduates.

Johnson’s peers elected him as the medical school’s student speaker, and he said he will draw inspiration for his remarks from conversations with classmates. As they shared stories about what they’d witnessed during clinical rotations, he thought about how they can serve as their own teachers, making note of both best practices and what not to do in patient settings. Johnson also heard classmates express everything from excitement to anticipation to anxiety and even ambivalence about leaving the school and city they have called home for at least four years.

While Johnson won’t venture far geographically after graduating — he will start an anesthesiology residency in Boston at Harvard Medical School/Massachusetts General Hospital — he can relate to the idea of feeling anxious about the future. He made a big move when he came to Providence in 2019 from Mississippi, where he’d grown up in Greenville and studied biology at Tougaloo College, a historically Black college in Jackson.

Johnson applied to Brown during his sophomore year of college as part of the Early Identification Program in Medicine, one element of the longstanding Brown-Tougaloo Partnership. He’d heard that New England tends to be a bit colder, both in climate and attitude, but when he met people at Brown, those concerns melted away. During his admissions interview at the medical school, he said he felt warmth radiating from Brown faculty and staff.  

“I had a really good feeling,” Johnson said. “I knew that Brown was where I was supposed to be. I couldn’t imagine myself doing my medical training anywhere else.”

The Brown community turned out to be even more supportive than Johnson expected, both of his academic pursuits as well as his extracurricular involvement and ideas.

“Anything that I've had the passion and drive to do, Brown has been in full support,” Johnson said.

Johnson is passionate about wellness, among other priorities, and he decided in medical school to become more intentional about his mental health. He was inspired by his experiences and those of his peers to create a mental health screening tool and resource referral for medical students. With the support of Kelly Holder, the medical school’s chief wellness officer, the screening is now embedded into the curriculum for third-year Warren Alpert Medical School students.

Photography is another enduring interest of Johnson’s — one that the medical school has supported and encouraged. In 2020, he turned to taking pictures as a way to process the intense emotions he felt after the killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. During his second year of medical school, Johnson had a “vision,” as he called it, of publicly exhibiting the photos he had taken during that charged time. Medical school leaders not only green-lighted Johnson’s idea, but also provided funding to display the photos in the atrium of the Warren Alpert Medical School.

The exhibit, titled “I Can’t Remember What I Yelled Back,” included large, empathetic images of Johnson’s family members, friends and neighbors in Greenville, Mississippi, and depicted the beauty and joy of Black lives in the American South. 

Coming to Brown really expanded the way that I thought. It made me more open to other people's perspectives. It made me more confident to be myself, and to let other people be themselves, as well.

John Johnson M.D. Class of 2023 Commencement Speaker
John Johnson head shot

Practicing medicine has often been referred to as art, and Johnson sees strong similarities between the two.

“I love art and medicine deeply, and I think it’s because at their foundation, they're really the same thing,” Johnson said. “They both require curiosity, attention and care; they’re both a form of deeply engaging with humanity.”

During the down-time before starting his medical residency, Johnson is focusing on photography, thinking about the types of images he’d like to make and taking pictures of people in his community in Greenville. He says the perspective he’s bringing back to Mississippi and forward into his medical career has changed because of the people he’s met at Brown. From his arrival on campus, students, faculty and staff have not only challenged his assumptions, but have shown respectful curiosity and genuine interest in how and what he thinks.

“When you come from a small community, some things are just accepted as truth — you believe it because you’ve never been presented with any other perspective outside of what's right in front of you,” Johnson said. “Coming to Brown really expanded the way that I thought. It made me more open to other people's perspectives. It made me more confident to be myself, and to let other people be themselves, as well.”

In his Commencement remarks to his classmates, likely the last time they’re all gathered together, Johnson plans to remind his fellow graduates of how special they are, and share his hope for their futures as physicians.

“I want us to grow, but not grow into something different — grow into more of what we already are,” he said.