When David Paul returned to his undergraduate alma mater, Hope College, earlier this year to deliver the college’s Martin Luther King Day, Jr. keynote speech, it occurred to him that he was the same age—27—as Martin Luther King, Jr., when he led the historic five-day, 54-mile march from Selma, Ala., to the capitol steps of Montgomery in 1965.
"Not only did Dr. King pass up prestigious career opportunities that he could have easily enjoyed, but he put his life, and his family’s life, in danger to transform Montgomery, Alabama—a citadel for despair in racial relations—into a tower of hope," Paul told the mostly white audience of faculty and students. "Think about the courage that took."
The youngest person to ever give the keynote address, Paul challenged the audience to think about racism as little more than "unchecked vulnerability" and to explore preconceived notions of race and identity. His powerful talk is characteristic of how Paul challenges himself to stretch the boundaries of his own courage, abilities and influence.
In elementary school, his high energy and tendency to get bored easily, got him labeled as a special education student until his mother fought the Kentwood, Mich., Board of Education to have him rightfully placed in a gifted program. From fourth grade on, Paul then had to adjust to being one of only two black students in the gifted class. "For me, it was beneficial because it allowed me to develop friendships across many cultures and races, and I had to focus more on relationships than the color of someone’s skin," he says.
He honed his abilities to switch between social groups by taking part in a spectrum of activities, including basketball, the business club, and playing saxophone in the band. Within the business club, he created his own marketing consulting firm, developing business plans for companies and designing trade show booths for national conventions.
It’s a work ethic inspired by his parents, but even more by his maternal grandfather, Robert Brown, a successful business owner of Brown Weld and Steel, who later became a pastor. "He set the tone for my family and showed me what the bar for success was," says Paul. "He built his house with his own hands, grew his business from the ground up. Even before I was of age to have a job, he was asking me, ‘What are you going to do with your life?’"
As a pastor, his grandfather would take Paul along with him to the nearby hospital when he visited patients. "That left a big impression on me as I could see what a difference he made with people," says Paul. "A lightbulb went off about being a doctor and what an impact you could have."
His mother, a marketing copywriter with a bachelor’s degree in Engineering from the University of Michigan, and his father, a packaging specialist, made college an expectation. Paul chose to attend Hope College, a predominantly white, Christian-based school of only 4,000 students, after learning that 93 percent of its pre-medical students got into medical school.
"I knew it would be challenging, but that’s what I was looking for," he says, adding that there were only four other African-American men in his graduating class.
"There was discrimination," he says. "There were times when people would say, ‘I don’t know why you’re here because black students are academically inferior.’ But on the whole, I learned to block out racial stuff, to find ways to get along with everyone, and really try to understand where people were coming from. I had very strong coping mechanisms by that point."
Still, he grappled with his identity while trying to shift between white and black worlds.
"Let’s just say you can’t wear khaki pants and a polo shirt when you’re going to hang out in your hometown barber shop with your black friends," he laughs. "I did a lot of changing clothes back then, until my senior year, when I finally became comfortable with my own blended style that is just me."
Paul chose the UR for medical school because of the welcoming impression it made. "Meeting second-year Neurosurgery resident Clifford Pierre (MD ’14) when I visited really sealed the deal for me, and I felt like everyone in the school was genuine. No one was haughty or prideful here," he says.
In time, Paul forged connections with his current mentor, associate professor of Neurosurgery G. Edward Vates, MD, and others, which fueled his passion for research and set his sights on becoming an academic neurosurgeon. In 2015, his pilot study of a new way to measure myelin changes within the brain’s visual system was published in Science magazine, and paved the way for further funded research.
The desire to continue his research was a major reason he selected URMC as his top choice for residency, and was ecstatic to learn on Match Day that the feeling was mutual. He and his wife, who recently earned her MBA from the Simon School of Business and is starting her career at Wegmans, are eager to remain in Rochester.
"We have an extended family within our church, a circle of friends, and a sense of belonging here," says Paul. "Everything hasn’t been perfect in terms of acceptance and diversity, but as a black man I have felt generally supported. Still, my story is only my story. Here and elsewhere, we all need to continue to evolve in the way we understand and relate to one another."