Walking through the rough streets of his home town of Flatbush in Brooklyn, N.Y. in the late ’90s, Clifford Pierre (MD ’14), was easy to spot. "My senior year, I decided to wear a shirt, tie, and slacks to school every day," recalls Pierre, the son of Haitian immigrants who moved to Brooklyn for a piece of the American dream.
"Everyone would ask me, ‘Why are you dressed this way?’" he says. "In the inner city, everything is about the latest fashion and best pair of sneakers. But to me the first impression always counts, and I wanted to dress in what, to me, success looked like. No one hassled me because it was my identity and I was confident about it. One thing I’ve never been afraid of is being a leader."
It was a character trait instilled by his hard-working father, a school bus driver, and his mother, an in-home aide. His father had finished high school in Haiti and completed some college courses. His mother, one of nine children, never attended school, but taught herself English in the U.S. so she could earn money for her family.
"My parents’ message was, ‘Work hard in whatever you do and that will lead to success,’" he says. "They were grounded in the church, and instilled in us core values of discipline, structure, doing what’s right, and being positive members of the community. They encouraged reading and getting an education, and never put a ceiling on our goals."
Although violence and crime were common in his neighborhood—made up of first-generation Caribbean and African-American families—he resisted joining a gang like many of his peers, and instead found his sense of belonging in school and on the varsity basketball team.
"My father taught me about being a leader by example," says Pierre. "How he led his life is what I watched and observed. For example, he told me what to do if you are ever stopped by the police in terms of cooperating, and how important it is to not be resistant about why they’re stopping you, especially in Brooklyn. He constantly reminded me about giving back to others, and that positive things lead to more positive things."
An avid reader at a young age, Pierre was funneled into gifted programs in school, but they were mostly self-taught. In his high school of more than 5,000 students, he and other students often had to stand in overcrowded classrooms without enough seats.
"But I kept at it, I liked learning, and along the way I was fortunate that there was a teacher or member of my church who would take time to make a phone call for me, or sit down for coffee, or challenge me to be part of a science competition," he says. "That’s why I stay true to giving back today, because I stand on the shoulders of so many who helped me."
Still, some would say Pierre’s desire to give back began early on. Just ask his high school basketball teammates.
"Our coach was not pleased because some of the players would be ineligible due to their grades," says Pierre. "So I began encouraging them to come to study hall with me, and we built a brotherhood like that. It ended up that they all made it to college. I was so proud of that."
Pierre did the same as a student at New York University, starting a group called Gentlemen of Quality—dedicated to leadership, service and scholarship—that is still going strong now 13 years later.
"I loved that NYU is a private university in a public city, with no quad, no university walls," says Pierre. "To succeed there you have to have a go-getter mentality, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, keep asking questions, and be flexible to multiple situations. But it was a mostly white student body there, so it was great to bring together men of color, and mobilize our bonds of friendship to help the community."
Along the way, Pierre learned the value of feeling comfortable in one’s own skin, and in any type of clothing. "It’s very important for young men of color to be solid in their identity," says Pierre, who shares this message with members of UR’s Minority Male Leadership Association that he co-founded in 2013. "But also to be able to codeswitch between social circles of various backgrounds and ethnicities without losing your identity. It’s a skill that isn’t taught in any textbook but can only be learned by interacting with different types of people over time. College offers that to black men."
With all of his experiences and hard work, getting into medical school still wasn’t easy, Pierre admits. To gear up for the MCAT, he did two years of post-baccalaureate medical school preparation at Southern Illinois University. "Ultimately, I chose Rochester because it’s a place that’s very supportive," he says.
A perfect example of this is when Pierre’s beloved father suffered a cerebral aneurysm while he was in medical school.
"It was such a difficult time and it was also so profound to me, because I already had an interest in the field of Neurosurgery," says Pierre. "I connected with my mentor, Dr. (G. Edward) Vates, and he was there for my family, offering incredible support and connected me with wonderful neurosurgeons at Columbia University who could help my father. Dr. Vates is an amazing man, an amazing mentor, and the whole experience really solidified my decision to study Neurosurgery."
Sadly, a year later, his father passed away from the effects of a heart attack, never getting to see his son graduate from medical school.
"I came back to Rochester after he had his aneurysm, instead of taking a break, because it was my dad’s dream that I finish medical school," he says. "Knowing that he was getting sicker made me really want to finish for him. So that was very hard, but I know he did see me from above. Every time I talk to a younger student, and encourage them to make better decisions, and think about college, and not be afraid to be the voice of reason among their peers, I always see and hear a little of my father, and that makes me smile."