What It Meant to Me
By Dr. Alexa Canady (BS ’71, MD ’75)
In “What It Meant to Me,” Leaders & Best invites some of U-M’s proudest sons and daughters to tell their Michigan story. Dr. Alexa Canady is a graduate of U-M’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts and its Medical School. Following graduation, Canady went on to qualify as the first African American woman in the United States to become a neurosurgeon. Here, she shares her U-M experience and how a scholarship offer in the summer of 1970 helped her make history.
I grew up outside of Lansing. My father was a dentist and my mother raised the children. We lived a pretty middle-class lifestyle. It was the early 1950s, and my older brother and I had integrated one of the county schools. We knew that we stood out there, but our mother had another saying. “You might be a token, and so what if you are? You take your token and spend it.”
The summer after second grade, my grandmother came to visit us. She was a professor at Lane College in Tennessee, and she’d decided to come up and take a course to further her education (otherwise known as “play with the grandchildren”).
Her class was on aptitude testing, and I happily volunteered to be her subject because it meant spending more time with her. A funny thing happened next. When my grandmother’s professor saw my scores, he asked her to bring me in for more testing. Apparently, I’d done abnormally well.
That’s how it came to light that my teacher had been lying about my test scores in school. She’d been switching them with a white girl’s in my class. And just like that, it turned out I wasn’t so average after all.
Maybe that kind of thing was just part of life then, but we didn’t know it as children. I didn’t find out about any of this until I was already in college; I didn’t even know my teacher had been fired. All I knew was that I was allowed to skip the third grade, and that was enough to spark a new confidence in me.
By the time I reached high school, I’d set my heart on being a mathematician. I had my heart set on MIT, too, and I was crushed when I didn’t get in. On the other hand, I was thrilled when I was accepted at the University of Chicago. But my mother was less thrilled at the idea of sending a 16-year-old girl to live alone in the city. That left one obvious choice for a student like me: Michigan.
Except I was forbidden to go there. My older brother chose Michigan, and I had been hot on his heels ever since I’d skipped a grade. As a freshman, I was taking advanced algebra and studying calculus on my own. As a sophomore, I was sitting a few rows behind him in his trigonometry class.
Finally, my parents said, “I think your brother’s had enough. He’s off to college and I think he’s earned the right to be by himself.” And so they said I had to stay away from Ann Arbor. But what else could I do? I needed to be somewhere I could thrive, and MIT and Chicago were off the table. Luckily, at sixteen I had a bit of a rebellious streak in me. You bet I sent my application in myself.
I got in. And boy, that did wonders for my ego.
That’s how I ended up at Michigan, and it really was the best place for me. I stayed in Alice Lloyd Hall up on the hill. My first year in Ann Arbor was phenomenal. I have nothing but warm memories of that time—except that I ended up having to take field hockey for my physical education requirement. I’m sorry, but field hockey is just a god-awful sport.
Most of my first two years I was a debater. That was my thing. Debate became truly all consuming, in the way things do when they’re really wonderful. We were traveling all the time, gone most weekends. Bill Colburn was the coach, and he set very high expectations. Debate trained me to sharpen my mind and gave me lifelong skills that I still use today.
Unfortunately, mathematics and I didn’t get along in the same way. By my sophomore year, I started to realize that it wasn’t for me. I just didn’t like it in the same way those guys did. It triggered a crisis of confidence that set me into a downward spiral.
I didn’t much go to class; I didn’t much study; for a year I didn’t do much of anything. It wasn’t long before I ended up on academic probation. I badly needed some direction.
That summer I ended up staying in Ann Arbor and taking up a job on The Michigan Daily. My first year I was the city reporter, and I ended up taking on the editorial page. It paid about $400 a month, which doesn’t seem like much, but in those days it was. And because I was working as editorial page editor, I didn’t go into work until five o’clock at night to work on the morning newspaper. It worked for me.
That same summer, between my junior and senior years, my brother said he’d heard about a scholarship program in medicine for minority students. My ears perked up when he told me the program paid. I went after it.
And that’s how I found medicine. I worked under Art Bloom in his lab and in the genetics clinic at University Hospital. He showed me what a joy the field could be, and after that, it was all medicine. So I switched my major to zoology before my senior year. It was never my passion, and I won’t claim to know a thing about zoology, but it helped me complete all of my prerequisites for medical school.
And then I got lucky enough to get in, which wasn’t guaranteed with my academic record. I was helped by the fact that the dean of admissions read the Daily. He knew my name, he knew my articles, and he knew that I could think critically. I didn’t think about that at the time, but debate and the Daily helped me get into med school.
By the time I got there, I was ready to be a student again—and it had been a long time. At that point I’d finished growing up, and I was ready to study and work hard. I studied every single day, except for Friday. That was my off day. After class was over on Friday, I didn’t have to pick up a book and I didn’t have to feel guilty. Now, there were other days that I didn’t pick up a book—but I felt guilty those days.
I finished medical school with cum laude honors, and along the way I’d gotten myself obsessed with neurosurgery. When it came time to find a residency, Michigan was low on my list, because I knew the chair of the neurosurgery department didn’t want me. He sat me down in his office on Christmas Eve and read off a long list of the people he’d washed out of his program. I got the message.
I knew I wasn’t wanted there, but that rejection started me on a campaign.
I was going to show people my work and I was going to get my residency.
At every stop, I heard a lot of, “Are you really sure this is what you want? Do you really want to do this?” You know, that kind of line. But by putting in the work, I demonstrated that I knew exactly what I was getting into and exactly what it would mean if I should fail.
I made it to Minnesota for residency, and before I knew it, I was a neurosurgeon. I had achieved my dream. And that’s all it was to me, because being the “first” anything was never my goal. It wasn’t until I started talking to people in the community that I understood that milestone and why it was more important than I realized.
Its importance was twofold. One, it was important for the children who would no longer see neurosurgery as yet another world that they couldn’t belong to. That’s the side everybody appreciates.
But there’s another side to it. For the white residents who trained under me, especially the white male residents, neurosurgery was no longer their world. It became our world.
And that was equally important in changing society’s expectations. So while being first wasn’t important to me, it was important for many others. I think that kind of impact is a big part of being “leaders and best.”
I’m still grateful for the start I got at Michigan. For me, it was a wonderful place. Like a thousand other little steps along the way, pursuing that scholarship changed the course of my life. I’ve been happy to give back where I can because I know Michigan is a good place, and I know that money matters. I don’t have big money, but I give what I can to support things like debate, the Daily, and minority scholarship programs.
Much of who we are depends on who we believe we are. But much also depends on how the world sees us. Places like Michigan help us see our own potential and then fulfill it.
They also help us show the world what we’re capable of, and they help us reshape the restraints that society places on us. Before I came through Michigan, neurosurgery was a white man’s world. A scholarship helped me find my passion and set me on the path to changing that, not just for myself, but for the people who followed in my footsteps.
That’s what Michigan meant to me.
Editor’s note: The introduction has been edited to note that Dr. Canady was the first African American woman to become a neurosurgeon, not the first woman. In fact, U-M’s own Dr. Joan Venes was one of neurosurgery’s first female pioneers, becoming a neurosurgeon in 1974. Venes joined the U-M faculty in the 1980s and became a full professor in 1990.