Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

Passionate Pursuit: A Grandmother at Yale Medical School

May 20th, 2007 by Ajuan Mance

Karen Morris 

Karen Morris 

If you are a regular watcher of the Oprah Winfrey show, they you’ve already heard of Karen Morris, the history-making African American med student who, on the 28th of this month, will become the first grandmother ever to graduate from Yale Medical School.

If you aren’t familiar with the story of this soon-to-be doctor then this rough timeline, based on a 2003 article in Yale Medicine, will fill you in on some of the details of her inspiring road to the M.D. degree:

  • At age 11 Morris decides to become a doctor “so she could take car of her ailing grandmother, who died while Morris was still a teenager.”
  • At age 16 Morris gives birth to her first child, feeling that she has disappointed her family and foiled her efforts to go to college and become a doctor. 
  • In 1980 Morris completes high school and goes on to marry the man who had been her boyfriend since fifth grade.
  • Shortly after marrying, she learns that her husband opposes her plans to go to college.
  • Morris completes cosmetology school and runs a beauty shop out of her home.
  • At age 29 Morris, now a mother of five, enrolls at Harrisburg Area Community College.
  • She separates from her husband when he attempts to interfere with her studies. They eventually divorce.
  • In 1996 Morris graduates summa cum laude with an associate’s degree in nursing.
  • She enrolls at York College “with her children’s encouragement,” to work toward her bachelor’s in nursing.
  • While working at a men’s prison, studying toward her bachelor’s degree, and overseeing her children’s care and education, she begins taking medical school prerequisite courses.
  • In July of 2001 Morris attends a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-sponsored summer program for minority students interested in medical school, where she excells.
  • In the first half of 2002 Morris is admitted to three of the four medical schools that she applies to, choosing Yale over Penn State and Pitt.
  • In June of 2002 she graduates magna cum laude from York College, with a bachelor’s degree in nursing. 
  • In the winter of 2003 she is profiled in Yale Medicine.
  • In April of 2007 Morris marries William Priester, a police sergeant from Windsor, Connecticut.
  • On May 4, 2007 Morris attends an mandatory class meeting of graduating Yale med students where she learns that the Oprah Winfrey Show has singled her out for recognition on its “Cheers to You” episode.
  • The following Tuesday Morris tapes the “Cheers to You” episode, during which she is joined on stage by her five children, her four grandchildren, and her husband.
  • During the taping of that episode she learns that the Ambi Skincare company has named Morris the first recipient of its Ambi Scholarship in Science and Medicine, and will be paying off all of her educational debt, a total of roughly 160,000 dollars.

Commencement will mark the beginning of the next chapter in Karen Morris’s career. Central Pennsylvania’s Patriot News reports that, “She will spend a year in internship at Lehigh Valley Hospital, near Allentown. Then she’ll move to Boston to study anesthesiology at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a Harvard-affiliated program. ”

There’s a powerful theme that runs through Karen Morris’s story, one that explains her relentless pursuit of a medical career, from associate’s degree in nursing to B.S.N. to M.D. And it is the same theme that at least partially explains Ronald Mallet’s 40-year quest for the secrets of time travel. These extraordinary figures are each driven by their passion for a specific subject or scientific question. In each case, neither could truly settle into or even envision a life in which the pursuit of their intellectual passion did not play central role. Each was willing to do whatever was required to make this so, even including the financial and personal sacrifices necessary to achieve multiple academic degrees.

Each day as I drive through the streets of Oakland, California, I see groups of young Black men, many of them high school aged, standing outside of convenient stores and on street corners during school hours, cracking jokes and talking trash and sometimes participating in the local underground economy. I see these young kids and I think of Ronald Mallet who despite his succes never particularly liked school, and I think Karen Morris who made some of the same youthful errors in judgement that many young women make in high school, and with the same results (teen motherhood). If each of these exceptional minds had not fallen in love with a particular field of study early in their lives (each of them had identified his/her life’s path by the age of 11), would they have spent their teen years standing on the corner, skipping school? I wonder what passion  might draw some of today’s young brothers away from the storefronts and street corners, and back into the classrooms. What passion — for art or mathematics or aviation or automobile design or space travel or the law or something entirely unique — would invest education with new meaning, so that they would finally see it as a means to an end rather than a [dead] end in itself?

Posted by Ajuan Mance

Posted in African Americans, Grandmother, Higher Education, Ivy League, Karen Morris, Medical School, My Favorite Blogs, Oprah, race, Ronald Mallett, Women in Science, Yale

10 Responses

  1. She's What We Like to Call "Non-Traditional" « A Farrago Of Gallimaufries

    […] Read more about her in Yale Medicine (from 2003) and at Black on Campus. […]

  2. I know what you are thinking! Why can't they all be like Karen? « A Moveable Feast

    […] 22nd, 2007 by howard53545 Passionate Pursuit: A Grandmother at Yale Medical School May 20, […]

  3. Ulonda R. Beaty

    My name is Ulonda Beaty. I am a friend of Karen and her twin Sharon. Her sister Anita is my son’s godmother. Karen I am so proud of you. You have inspired me to pursue my career. I am now attending college to become a registered nurse. You go girl. I love you. Ulonda

  4. markbey

    This sister is a bad, bad women. Im talking about Muhamad Ali Im a BADDDDDD Man bad. Praises be to god for sisters like her.

  5. Sister from Philadelphia

    I am so proud of her. She has truly inspired me I am 39 years old taking classes to enter the Nursing program. Since I have heard her story I have now decided to follow my dreams and become a Doctor my self. And I have Dr.Karen Morris Preister to thank. So here it is Thank you Doctor for having the courage to follow your dreams for all of us especially me.

  6. Carol Johnson

    I just wanted to say that I worked with Karen at HSH in Harrisburg, PA. She was one of the greatest nurses I’ve ever worked with. She just had a way with the patients. I’m sure she’ll be an even greater Doctor. I admire her greatly and was inspired to go to nursing school myself. I’ve had to do it in steps like she did. I’m graduating from LPN school Aug 13, 2008 and am attending HACC (like she did) in Jan 2009 for the RN program.
    Congrats Karen on your success at becoming a Doctor and on your marriage.

  7. Ajuan Mance

    Thank you for your comments. Dr. Karen Morris is one of the most inspiring women I know of. Hers is the kind of story that motivates others to pursue their dreams. I know that she has had this impact on my life, and we’ve never even met!

  8. Anita Hall

    First I would like to say thank you to Ajuan Mance for this beautiful article on my sister. It is so good to see that her story no only inspires her family but strangers as well. May GOD continue to bless you in all that you do.

  9. Black on Campus

    Hi Anita,

    I’m so glad you enjoyed this article. Your sister is truly a remarkable woman, and her story is a true inspiration. I wish her all the best in her future endeavors. I have no doubt that she will continue to have great success.

    Many blessings and thanks,

    Ajuan Mance

  10. kwame

    WOW! what a black fantastic story. (i think i was out of the country when it broke.) AMAZING. keep souring sista-Dr Karen. kzs