Growing up in the Jim Crow South, studying abroad as a Merrill Scholar in Vienna was life-changing for Maxine Hayes. It was the first time she felt free of segregation and truly accepted as a person of color. After a year in Vienna, during which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, she returned to Spelman College to complete a fifth year and face a new world of opportunities available to African Americans. Taking full advantage, Maxine earned a medical degree from SUNY School of Medicine in Buffalo and a Master’s in Public Health from Harvard University. From 1988 to 2013, Maxine served in various positions in the Washington State Department of Public Health, most recently as State Health Officer – the state’s top doctor for 16 years. In our interview, Maxine shares how study abroad impacted her approach to medicine and was pivotal in changing the course of her life.
IES Abroad: A science student at Spelman College, you studied abroad as a Merrill Scholar in Vienna from 1967-68. What led you to choose Vienna?
Dr. Maxine Hayes: The one thing about Vienna for me as a science major was the German language. I wanted to learn German, which was a pretty brave thing since I didn’t know German! I went to Vienna prior to the start of the academic year to take a very intense introduction to the language. I was assigned to live with a family who didn’t speak any English, which helped me immensely. The conversational German that I learned from the family, in particular, really gave me a jump start. So many of the classes I wanted to take were in German.
IES Abroad: What challenges did you face? In what ways did you grow?
MH: The biggest challenge for me aside from learning the language was the climate. This was the first time I had exposure to winter, coming from the South. It was a big issue! It was a positive for me, though, and I enjoyed it. I never did learn how to ski while I was there; I was afraid of falling! I do remember wonderful sleigh rides and seeing Salzburg and so many beautiful places in the mountains. It was absolutely beautiful. Academically, I did very well. I had to keep up my GPA. Studying in Vienna gave me the opportunity, for the first time in my academic career, to not take any science classes. I used the opportunity to devote myself to the arts, culture, history, and international relations. That experience continues to profoundly impact a lot of my behavior, thinking, and choices today.
IES Abroad: After studying abroad, you went on to attend the State University of New York School of Medicine in Buffalo and later earned a Master's of Public Health at Harvard University. What inspired you to go to medical school and pursue a career in public health?
MH: The thing that changed everything for me while studying in Vienna, which I didn’t realize the full impact until I came home, was that Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were both assassinated during the time I was in Vienna. Because their lives were taken, there were policy changes that opened the possibility for me to go to medical school. My time in Vienna as a Merrill Scholar delayed my graduation from college by one year. That delay proved to be life-changing both in terms of my career and in terms of my opportunity. Prior to going overseas, I couldn’t imagine ever going to medical school. African Americans were not accepted into graduate school disciplines. It wasn’t until Affirmative Action and quotas set by the Federal Government that doors of opportunity were opened for me to step through. This was divine destiny for my whole life. I was very fortunate to be out of the country – it delayed my graduation. I had classmates who would have given anything to have gone to medical school. They graduated on time and went to work in labs, and I was lined up for that future, too. That year abroad made all the difference! I was pursued by medical schools! I chose Buffalo because it had Roswell Park Cancer Institute. It had always been one of my goals to do cancer research. I went on to get a public health degree from Harvard. When I went to Vienna, I had no idea that this was going to happen. It was a divine gift. This is one of the reasons why I chose public health – it is more service-oriented. I felt that I was given the opportunity for a reason and that was to give back.
IES Abroad: In what ways did you change the most during your time in Vienna? Did the experience shape the way you think in a profound way today?
MH: I’m certain that having studied abroad made me that much more of a ‘catch’ for the medical schools. So many minority students didn’t have opportunities to go abroad. That would have made my application stand out. My time in Vienna changed me a lot. The biggest change was brought about by the introduction to the arts. I became a tremendous lover of the arts: the symphony, opera, plays. When I came back to this country, even though I was a science major, and continuing today, wherever I am, I always enjoy the arts. It has become part of my DNA! Vienna changed my DNA!
Another thing that study abroad did was to widen my worldview. You have to remember that in 1967-68, having been brought up with Jim Crow laws in Mississippi, the furthest place I had gone was Atlanta. That is not very far! Because of Jim Crow laws, we couldn’t really stay in hotels or eat in restaurants. My worldview was pretty narrow! In Vienna, I saw the world very differently than I had in the South. To go to Europe and to see how other people lived in the world and to actually be so accepted as a person of color, I didn’t feel that segregation. I didn’t feel that I couldn’t go any place because of my color. In fact, the people in my neighborhood, the 9th district, I’d hear people say “Schokolade fräulein.” I understand that they don’t do that anymore. It was always a curiosity and an acceptance that I hadn’t experienced in the States. It was freeing for me! The rest of the world was not like the world I had come from. People really considered the color of my skin to be very beautiful. It was different and exotic. I was treated very differently than how I was treated at home. This really improved my image of myself. In fact, being considered exotic in Vienna led to many invitations to the balls! I wasn’t prepared for this. I had no ball gowns. My IES Abroad classmates dressed me for the occasions. I had nothing, but I had the invitations! It was wonderful! Incredible!
IES Abroad: When you think back over your many years in public health, what are you most proud of?
MH: I’m very proud of the fact that I provided leadership on diversity, cultural awareness, and cultural sensitivity. Going into public health after having studying abroad in Vienna helped me in my approach to health, emotion, and disease prevention and in understanding cultural differences and cultural awareness related to wellness. Vienna taught me the importance of understanding cultures. In fact, when I retired, they named a public health award in my honor focusing on diversity: The Maxine Hayes Diversity Award. I spent a lot of time raising awareness among people in public health about the importance of understanding culture and its impact on health and wellness, and also on embracing diversity and its importance in working with diverse communities.
Today, that has really proved to be essential because we have a global community. The global world has come to America, and we have the influence of the global community everywhere. Ethnic minorities are becoming an important part of more and more communities. This is central to addressing health equities, and it is an important issue for Medicare and Medicaid. This focus is a big step for the Federal Government in providing health services. Culture and respect for culture is now being considered. I’m so proud of this. I am happy that I have been able to do work related to preparedness, whether it is in responding to epidemics or natural disasters, as well as immunizations and tobacco. I was elected to the Institute of Medicine (IOM), now the National Academy of Medicine, in 2006 and am very proud of the work I have done with the IOM in the various policy committees related to children, early child development and the importance of early brain development and psycho-social, emotional, and physical health and wellbeing.
IES Abroad: What is one thing you learned abroad that remains a constant in your life today?
MH: I love the arts! That is a constant. I learned to love the arts. Being a physician, this improves my sensitivity to the fact that medicine is a science and an art. I think that sensitivity to the impact that the arts have, even with the science, makes a true difference to how we apply what we know to humanity. One thing that I’ve learned is that the arts contribute so much to everything, no matter what it is.
It never hurts to have a well-developed worldview. No matter what we do career-wise, studying overseas is transformational. Today, we have so many complex global health issues, and we cannot solve any of these problems in isolation. It is now a global community. Of course, now we have the World Wide Web—it is so important to be connected. We have one world. The concept of one science that draws us together rather than divides us—it brings all of our thinking and resources to excel in this new information age that we find ourselves in. The problems are challenging and complex, but they don’t have to be isolated in their solutions because diverse opinions guide us in how they will be solved.
Another constant is the love of travel, which was instilled in me when I was a student in Vienna. I went to Israel, Scandinavia, and so many of the European countries while I was a student in Vienna. And now, in the last six months alone, I have traveled to three continents: Australia, Europe, and Africa.
IES Abroad: Why is study abroad so important?
MH: We are all global citizens. Some of us are just more aware of it than others. The importance of programs like IES Abroad cannot be over emphasized today. There is something to be said about the arts and their way of influencing the political debate and humanities and policy. Experiences like study abroad help prepare us to solve global problems.