An American in Africa
After completing medical school, Sam Willis decided his residency could wait. He wanted to see the world.
So he joined the Peace Corps and spent two years working as a health volunteer in Burkina Faso, one of Africa’s poorest countries. Living among the Burkinabé, in a mud-and-brick house with no running water, Willis learned the native language along with French. Every day, he hauled water back from a well so he could take a bath outdoors.
He talked to the villagers about sanitation, HIV/AIDS prevention, and ways to fight malnutrition. He helped set up a food bank to tide residents over during the summer dry seasons, when the rains stopped and they couldn’t plant crops.
When he came back to the United States, it was with a different worldview.
“Learning to speak another language opened up my mind to understanding how the world works,” says Willis, who today is an assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine and practices family medicine in Houston, Texas, treating patients from disadvantaged communities.
“Sometimes you get so caught up in ‘I’m from this place,’ you don’t see who you are in the context of the world. I became a global citizen.”
Poverty and Football
Burkina Faso was a long way from home—not only in terms of distance, but also compared to Willis’s early life.
He grew up in the old steel-mill town of Aliquippa, Pa., about a half-hour northwest of Pittsburgh, where jobs were few, high school football was king, and kids dreamed they could escape poverty by playing in the pros. A few—Ty Law and Mike Ditka—had actually made it to the NFL, and every other boy in town wanted to be “the one” too.
“We were on welfare all of our life,” says Willis, whose father was alternately a minister without a congregation and a man who drank too much. “I can’t remember a time when my father worked a job 8 to 5. He would do odd jobs like cut grass.” His mother suffered from schizophrenia and a bipolar disorder that kept her from working, although she could take care of her four children most of the time when on her medicine.
When Willis was in the 4th grade, his father put aside the alcohol. “He started committing his life to Christ,” says Willis. “He stopped drinking. He started taking us to church, and people there helped us. He’d find some little job to do and life would be better. If he got off that path for some reason, started drinking and stuff, life would get bad again.”
By age 15, Willis was working odd jobs after school, during the summer, and in between football practices so he could make money to help with the bills. He and his siblings shoveled snow and did other jobs, anything to keep out of trouble and not sell drugs like some of their friends. They were searching for ways to succeed, and football seemed to be the best answer.
Willis played well enough to get a coveted football scholarship to Washington & Jefferson College (W&J) in Washington, Pa. Once he got there, he says, he experienced what he calls “a religious transformation.”
“I was committing myself to God at that time,” he says. “I became more serious about my education, serious about life and my direction. I wanted to give school my best shot and try to do something with my life.”
Willis knew he didn’t want to follow the pattern of other young men from his hometown: get a football scholarship to a Division II or Division III school, then flunk out and go back to Aliquippa to work in a grocery store. When he arrived at W&J, he had a talk with the coach.
“I said, ‘Coach, I know I’m not going to go pro. I know I’m not that good. I do want to play football, but I’m afraid I’m going to fail out of school. Do you mind if I take this first year off and focus on school?'”
Though surprised, the coach told him to go ahead. “He said, ‘Nobody’s ever said that to me before, but I think it’s a good idea.'”
Willis had already realized that he wanted a career where he could serve people, but he wasn’t sure what form it would take. At W&J, its contours began to emerge. There, he was introduced by his advisor to a Black physician, educator, and W&J alumnus named James L. Phillips—”Dr. P” to his students—who became one of the linchpins in his life.
Dr. P., who originated and directed the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Minority Medical Education Program (MMEP, now SMDEP) at Case Western Reserve University, encouraged Willis to apply to MMEP at Baylor, where Phillips had joined the faculty in 1993.
Willis arrived at Baylor in the summer between his freshman and sophomore years. It was the first time he had ever been outside the Pittsburgh area except for W&J, which was about an hour from his home. He knew little about the field of medicine, assuming that a person went to medical school right out of high school.
“MMEP was a good opportunity for me to see what life was like outside the little world I was used to,” he says. “There were a lot of other young Black students and minority students there, and it gave me a lot of confidence that I could actually do this, that I could actually find a career in medicine.”
Shadowing a physician at MMEP gave Willis his first chance to see what they actually do. He was a junior back at W&J, though, before he actually made up his mind.
“For me, medicine was like ministry,” he says. “You’re helping people to heal, and a minister does similar things—but more spiritual. It came to me that my dad spent his life whenever he could trying to help other people. I didn’t realize how much influence that had on me. I saw the similarities, like a minister talks with somebody, understands their problems, tries to help them, and I saw my dad do that.”
After Baylor, he postponed his residency and headed to Africa. The Peace Corps experience taught him a lot, not only about himself but also about U.S. largesse.
“There are a lot of things I’m proud of about America since going to Africa,” says Willis. “America does a lot of good in the world. We give a lot of money to a lot of countries, and Burkina Faso is one of them.”
It also helped solidify his identity as an American. “As a Black person who grew up in America, you kind of feel like you’re not really part of what’s going on,” he explains. “My heritage and culture are deeply intertwined in America, and I realized that I’m more American than I thought. But being over there helped me to transcend racial barriers. I’m not only American and African American but a citizen of the world.”
“You can come from a poor family and still make it.”
At Houston’s Strawberry Health Center and Martin Luther King Jr. Community Health Center, Willis cares for patients who are in situations like the one he grew up in, and he understands their predicament. Because he can relate to them, he says, they tend to follow his instructions.
He appreciates that MMEP helped put him in a position where he could help underserved communities, whether they’re Black, Hispanic, or White. It also gave a boost to a kid who knew he might never break free from the hardship that wore down so many from his home town. Even now, he says, there are others out there like him.
“They don’t have the confidence that they can do it,” says Willis. “They say, ‘Oh, that person is not like me. That person did not grow up like me. That person had everything, had a family that was supportive, so that’s why they can go to medical school.’ “They don’t understand that sometimes you can come from a poor family and still make it.”