Meet Orett Burke Jr.

Aspiring to Inspire

Orett Burke Jr.

Steppingstone 2006 / Thayer Academy 2013 / UMass Amherst 2017
First-year medical student, Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School

Orett speaking at UMass Amherst Graduation

This fall Orett Burke Jr. took the latest step on his dynamic life journey. His first months at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School have been “everything I hoped for.” Yes, it’s a challenge. Yet “I know it’s a privilege,” he quickly adds, “so I take it one day at a time and focus on how the work I put in today will save a patient tomorrow.”

While his Steppingstone teachers and advisors “inspired me deep down to reach for my goals,” Orett freely admits he never imagined a future in medicine as a young Scholar.

“Long story short. I never thought about being a physician until I saw a Black physician,” he says. “This is why I’m passionate about mentoring and supporting the next generation.”

Flashing back to his junior year as a standout athlete at Thayer Academy, he describes how meeting his team’s doctor, a Black orthopedist, led to “a 180-degree shift in my life.” Orett has gone on to shadow him countless times in the operating room.

He laughs to recount once telling his Thayer chemistry teacher that he’d never need to know the intricacies of science. “I went from being that person in high school to the biology major chosen to speak in front of thousands at my college graduation ceremony.”

DREAM OF BEING A DOCTOR
After Thayer, Orett fulfilled an early dream of playing college basketball as a Dickinson College recruit. For all his success on the court, including being part of a national run to the Elite 8, he felt the relentless pull of a different dream: to become a doctor.

White Coat Ceremony at Rutgers

Transferring to the University of Massachusetts Amherst let him focus on pre-medical studies. He quickly dove into the biological sciences, earning a role as a TA and spending semesters and summers working in research laboratories.

As a senior, he saw a pressing need for greater support for pre-medical students from underrepresented groups. With the goal “to diversify medicine,” Orett co-founded the university’s chapter of SNMA-MAPS (Student National Medical Association-Minority Association of Pre-Medical Students). “We started with six students, and now we have 60,” he says. Since graduating, he’s stayed involved by being there for students like himself.

It’s a prime example of how Orett strives to lead: noticing what needs to be fixed and taking charge to come up with solution.

LIFTING UP OTHERS
That experience fueled an ongoing passion for mentoring. As he puts it, “I aspire to inspire others to pursue their dreams regardless of their backgrounds.” Now starting medical school has made Orett keenly aware of the example that he’s setting.

Orett with his mother and sister

He’s also aware of how many people have helped him along his own path. He’ll always be grateful to Steppingstone for having connected him with one of his very first physician mentors, Dr. Vincent Chiang, a member of the Steppingstone Board of Directors and Chief Medical Officer at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Since the two met through a career day, “Vinny’s been there for me throughout this entire process, and I’m fortunate to have someone like him in my corner,” says Orett. He’s not alone: Dr. Chiang has been a mentor to many Scholars, helping aspiring physicians with advice on the application and interview process and guidance on internships and scholarships.

Along the way, Vinny and other mentors have reminded Orett to measure success by how many others’ lives he lifts up. He wants to pay their generosity forward.

LESSONS OF STEPPINGSTONE
Ideally, in all parts of his life, Orett seeks to create relationships that stand the test of time. Thinking back to his Steppingstone days, “I’m still friends with my cohort,” he notes. “What I loved about it was meeting people who looked like me and had similar life experiences.”

Moreover, “our teachers made us feel confident and able,” he adds. The support didn’t stop after middle or high school. Steppingstone advisors checked in on him right through college and kept the connection alive.

Growing up, “I was raised to believe that anything is possible,” he says. His mom instilled confidence–and a daily lesson in hard work through her dedication to her job as a nurse. Steppingstone “helped me believe there are actually people outside my family who wanted to see me succeed.”

THINKING LONG-TERM
In life as in relationships, “I think long term,” Orett explains. When it comes to seeing things through, he can be “relentless.”

Alzheimer’s educational event

Since college, while he’s kept his sights on med school, he appreciates the ways in which his work at Brigham and Women’s Hospital added clarity and nuance to his goals.

His role as a research assistant at the hospital’s Center for Alzheimer Research and Treatment gave him deeper insight into the disparities faced by underserved communities. He remembers reading the seminal book Seeing Patients in the midst of his work, and being struck by the resonance of its themes of race and bias. In his daily interactions, he sought to build trust and genuine relationships, helping other people of color to feel seen and heard. When he noted issues, such as the potential to miss things in their medical histories, he worked for change.

The experience fueled a growing determination to be an advocate for patients who’ve often been left behind by the healthcare system.

Already in his first weeks as a med student, Orett has stepped up to volunteer at the Promise Clinic, a partnership between his school and the Elijah’s Promise Soup Kitchen in New Brunswick. He joined its community of fellow students and volunteer physicians serving and empowering clients to live healthier lives.

MORE TO HIS STORY
“As much as I can’t wait to be a physician, I don’t want only to be a physician,” Orett says.

Interview at UMass Amherst

He wants to challenge the tendency of society to perpetuate a common stereotype of a Black man being pigeonholed into either athletics or entertainment. If he hadn’t met his team doctor in high school, “I easily could’ve been in another profession,” he realizes. He often thinks about how many others are interested in medicine but unable to envision themselves in that career due to a lack of resources.

Moreover, Orett embraces his own dynamic, multifaceted nature. He sees himself as one day being a family man and always a friend to count on. He sees himself as a leader, a mentor, an innovator. He imagines raising funds to combat disease and perhaps helping build organizations in ways that impact the health of people and communities both locally and globally.

Telling his story in a video during his UMass days, he put it succinctly: “I stand for dream chasing.” Now, as he ponders his future, he knows “there’s more to my story.”

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