02/20/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

From High School Dropout To Medical School Valedictorian

Lucy Mercedes Martinez, my mother was probably my first mentor. She really tried to take care of me in spite of myself, and in spite of her own struggles with alcohol. She was an immigrant who had never finished school. But she was also a renaissance woman who read veraciously. She spoke several languages. She taught herself. She was an incredible lady. Despite her perpetual drinking and her struggles with substance, my mother would never forget her kids.

My three siblings and I lived with our mother and grandmother in Harlem in this dingy, little tenement apartment, and I remember the one light bulb hanging in the ceiling in the kitchen right over this little aluminum table. Mom would make us sit there and ask us questions about geography, about world leaders, about political issues of the day, and why should we be interested. Like other kids back then, all I wanted to do was go out and play in the streets.

While my mother tried to stem my truancy, it would be a complete stranger -- an Army Officer in the Special Forces home on leave -- who would be the mentor to drive home my mother's goal of getting me educated. His name was Saul Hassan. So, in 1967, I signed up for the Army where I earned an equivalency diploma, then went on to join the Special Forces. That was really was the turning point in my life. I became more disciplined and focused. I went overseas and was in combat, got wounded a couple of times, lost a lot of good friends but matured a great deal. I saw what real poverty's like in the rest of the world.

When I returned home from Vietnam just before my 21st birthday, I really was very different than the person who had enlisted at 17. I planned to stay in the service and make it a career. But my Army colleagues insisted that I should apply to college. I really was afraid to apply because I felt so unprepared. But eventually, I did apply to several and got rejected by all except one -- Bronx Community College. So that's where I went. My first year, I took remedial courses. It was intimidating to sit among very smart, young men and women who were scholars in school and had high GPAs and SATs. But I learned that while I wasn't the smartest kid, I was probably much more disciplined than everybody else. From my Army mentor and because of my mom, I was focused on this mission to get through school. I became an A student. I worked multiple jobs, as a police officer, paramedic, registered nurse, life guard, and teacher. I got married and had kids. Then I got into medical school at the University of California in San Francisco and did well. A lot of smart kids in medical school, and believe me, I wasn't not nearly the smartest one, but I was the most focused and the happiest kid in medical school. In 1979, I graduated as the valedictorian and was honored with the Gold Cane Award. From high school dropout to medical school valedictorian, I owed it to my mentors who both believed that education is the emancipating currency to free a person from a life of poverty.

It would be quite a few years later, in 2002, when I would get a rather surprising call to be the 17th Surgeon General of the United States, a position that allowed me to look back at my childhood to focus on the public health issues that continue to plague the poorest of our communities - homelessness, hunger, and health disparities. If asked how I would I mentor the new incoming Surgeon General, I would offer him or her this advice. You will be not only the top physician in this country, but in many respects, you will be the top physician of the world. It is a job about improving public health. Period. It should never ever be treated as a partisan position.

January is National Mentoring Month and is spearheaded by the Harvard School of Public Health, MENTOR/National Mentoring Partnership, and the Corporation for National and Community Service. For more information on the importance of mentoring, go to

It was a complete stranger -- an Army Officer in the Special Forces home on leave -- who would be the mentor to drive home my mother's goal of getting me educated.

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