Empowering the next generation of healthcare professionals

Growing up in Sacramento, California, Ashley Kyalwazi ’18 had a photo of her grandfather hanging in the bedroom she shared with her sister, Beverly Kyalwazi ’17.

“In the photo, my grandfather is extending an arm out towards one of his patients with Burkitt’s lymphoma. I grew up looking at that picture, envisioning the man that my grandfather was- his work ethic, his compassion, and his clinical excellence. I wanted to be for my patients, the type of physician he was for his,” Kyalwazi says.

Her grandfather was Dr. Sebastian Kyalwazi, the first East African surgeon, specializing in treating patients with solid tumor cancer. Among his many notable achievements, Dr. Sebastian Kyalwazi was the Former President of the Association of Surgeons of East Africa, Former Head of Surgery at Makerere University School of Medicine and lead surgeon on Pope Paul VI’s medical team, during the pontiff’s visit to Uganda in 1969. He ultimately received a state funeral in honor of his contributions to medicine in the country.

With her grandfather serving as the initial spark that drew her to medicine, Kyalwazi adds, “It was realizing the capacity for medicine to be used as a powerful avenue to advocate for and catalyze positive change in my community that drove me to pursue a career as a physician.”

This realization didn’t happen all at once. It started when she worked at the café that her parents, Michael and Winnie, owned in Sacramento. “I developed an affinity towards working with people from various backgrounds — an integral component of patient care I would later come to recognize,” Kyalwazi says.

Then, in high school, she worked with community organizations that advocated for the psychosocial rehabilitation of individuals living with serious mental illness. Continuing this work at Notre Dame, Ashley volunteered and served on the Board of Directors for the Clubhouse of St. Joseph County, a community-based center that supports adults with mental illness.

Today, Kyalwazi is a medical student with plans to work at the intersection of clinical practice, public policy, and social entrepreneurship.

She is in her final year at Harvard Medical School, also earning a Master in Public Policy degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. In 2020, she founded The MV3 Foundation — a national nonprofit dedicated to helping Black scholars pursue careers in health and biomedical sciences. And she’ll begin Internal Medicine residency in the summer of 2024.

In recognition of her work empowering the next generation of health care professionals from underrepresented backgrounds, Kyalwazi was honored as one of Notre Dame’s 2023 Domer Dozen. The Domer Dozen honors outstanding graduates ages 32 and younger for their significant contributions and extraordinary dedication to faith, service, learning and work — four areas in which the Notre Dame Alumni Association seeks to help alumni thrive.

Kyalwazi is determined to help build and advocate for equitable systems of care, with a clear focus on improving health outcomes among marginalized communities. She is also committed to paving the way for those who will come after her.

At Notre Dame, Kyalwazi founded the University’s chapter of Matriculate Advising Fellows, a national nonprofit that provides virtual mentoring to help high-achieving students from low-income backgrounds navigate the college application process.

“Education has always been a core value in my family. My parents, who are both Ugandan immigrants, worked tirelessly so that my siblings and I would be afforded an education in the U.S. There are no words to describe how appreciative I am for their unending love, encouragement and support,” says Kyalwazi, whose three siblings are also in the health care field. “I am motivated to use my own background and experience to broaden equitable access to educational resources and support, particularly for those from low socioeconomic backgrounds.”

In 2020, while in her second year of med school, Kyalwazi founded the MV3 Foundation.

“We are a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose mission is to guide, inspire, and invest in the development of Black college students in the U.S. pursuing careers in healthcare and/or biomedical science,” she says. “The foundation now supports its second cohort of nearly 100 students at colleges across the U.S., and the team has garnered a great deal of momentum, including partnerships with both Amgen Foundation and UnitedHealth.”

In March, Kyalwazi and her team won the 2023 Harvard Business School New Venture Competition, which includes a $75,000 prize to support future efforts.

“I have so much gratitude towards those who supported me as a first-generation, low-income, Black pre-medical college student, especially the Jackie Robinson Foundation and the Notre Dame Balfour Hesburgh Scholars Program” she says. “Similarly, I am committed towards using my background and experiences to broaden equitable access to key opportunities for the next generation of Black leaders who have a vision for the positive impact they hope to achieve in health science fields.”

When asked about how she balances her commitments, Kyalwazi shared: “My ‘why’ for engaging in the work I am doing has always been my north star. I pursue opportunities that are in line with my purpose, and also ones that energize me. I also make sure to prioritize my relationships with friends, family and God.”

She also likes to stay active, whether that’s playing intramural basketball with her graduate classmates, one-on-one tennis matches, board game nights or trying new restaurants.

Kyalwazi’s faith as a Christian is an integral aspect of her identity and one that she nurtured at Notre Dame, where she sang with Voices of Faith Gospel Choir, making lifelong friends and growing in her faith alongside her peers. “I pray that God continues to guide me as I look to use my background and opportunities as a healthcare professional to continue advocating for health and educational equity,” she says.

Originally published by Maura Sullivan Hill '11 at weare.nd.edu on January 18, 2024.