Life story fosters vision to serve disadvantaged

Erica Kiemele may be a poster child for cultural diversity, but the Harvard Medical School-bound grad most wants to be recognized for one thing: her talent.

Kiemele has an Aboriginal mother and a Taiwanese father, but was adopted at six months by a German-English father and a Taiwanese mother. Her adoptive older brother is ethnically Chinese.

“Visually I don’t have an identifiable ‘look.’ People see me and have no idea what I am—in addition to Aboriginal and ‘some kind of’ Chinese, I’ve been called Hispanic, Filipino, and even Egyptian once,” recalls Kiemele, who will receive her Master of Science degree from the Department of Chemistry before starting medical school in Boston this fall.

“I had plenty of access to my Taiwanese heritage through my family, but growing up in Calgary, attending French immersion school, I’ve felt a strong need to find my Aboriginal roots and assert my identity,” Kiemele says.

She has attempted to obtain official Aboriginal status—“to become a card-carrying Aboriginal”—but with limited information on her biological mother, the task has proven challenging.

“As far as I know from adoption papers, my biological mother is Aboriginal and French and most likely part of the Blackfoot Nation,” she says.
“She ran away from home when she was 14 and somehow ended up in Los Angeles, where she met my biological father, and that’s where I was born.”

Kiemele originally thought she’d become an accountant like many of her family members. “It seemed kind of practical,” she says. “But to get into the University of Calgary’s business school you needed two science credits, so I took Chemistry and Physics.”

She did so well in Chemistry that her high school teacher encouraged her to pursue it as a major. By the time she was pursuing a PhD in Chemistry at UBC, she found her true calling after volunteering with various projects with the First Nations House of Learning at UBC, Canucks Place Hospice, Vancouver Coastal Health, the Urban Native Youth Association and BC Children’s Hospital.

“I love working with children, and issues concerning Aboriginal and inner-city health really resonate with me,” she says. “My time volunteering at hospitals helped me realize that I can combine my passions into a life-long career helping people.”

“Despite their cultural and ethnic differences, underserved populations have a lot in common—especially in inner city communities—in terms of their health needs, ranging from addiction to diabetes to mental health,” says Kiemele, whose multicultural background will be an invaluable asset in serving these communities.

The opportunity to study—and later practice—in the U.S. appeals to Kiemele’s desire to spread her wings, and having been born in the U.S. makes her eligible to do both.

“In a way, my biological mother running away from home to L.A. as a teenager paved the way to my destiny—long before I knew what it was.”

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