These days, Latesha Elopre, M.D., Assistant Professor and junior faculty winner of the Dean’s Excellence Award in Diversity Advancement, is universes away from the first-grade classroom where her teacher publicly branded her as a slow learner.

Still, that label lingers as she remembers her mother’s fierce defense of her daughter, and of subsequent afternoons and evening spent with flash cards so she could catch up to her peers. “I was in the slow reading group,” Elopre remembered,Latesha Elopre “the slow math group, all the slow groups.”

It’s difficult to believe that Elopre, an infectious disease specialist who spent her residency and fellowship at UAB Hospital, and who infuses all of her activities with energy and enthusiasm, was ever considered “slow” – but this was a characteristic she had even assigned herself in her own mind.

She remembered that one day a teacher named Ms. Smith pulled her aside to reassure her about her intelligence. “You can do this,” the teacher told her. 

More than the teacher’s reassurance, Elopre always had her mother Glenda’s unwavering support and advocacy. “My mom’s my hero,” Elopre said. “I love her.”

The next to youngest of 12 children born to illiterate sharecroppers in East Dublin, Georgia, Elopre’s mother, Glenda McClendon, could easily have become trapped in the same intense poverty that gripped the rest of that small community. Her great-grandfather had been born just two days after the end of the Civil War; McClendon’s parents pick cotton to support their family. As sharecroppers, money was always tight.. Economic necessity meant that each of their children, in turn, worked in the cotton fields as well. 

McClendon was old enough to recall the first installation of indoor plumbing in their house. As one of only two girls, McClendon was fortunate enough to not have to work in the fields. In fact, she was precocious enough at school to be listed in “Who’s Who Among American High School Students.” She understood that staying in East Dublin would, in all likelihood, mean being stuck in poverty forever. After high school, she enlisted in the Navy – and decided that she would never return to East Dublin, except to visit family. 

“My mother was very strong in her beliefs that you could not grow in that amount of poverty,” Elopre remembered. “She was born somewhere where she wasn’t set up to succeed, but she did, and that is a testimony in itself.”

Elopre recalled that her mother always served as her advocate. “When I was in elementary school,” she said, “the school told my mom that I had a learning disability, that I should be put in special classes. They told her that I would never catch up to my peers. My mom refused to put me in special classes. She took time out to teach me how to read, to help me catch up.”

Elopre credits her mother’s curiosity and tenacity with giving her opportunities. In spite of the fact that Elopre was never recommended by her teachers for advanced classes, McClendon discovered that a teacher’s recommendation wasn’t necessary and insisted that her daughter be enrolled in accelerated courses. 

Seeking a better learning environment for her daughter, McClendon contacted the district superintendent to find out how to apply for a local magnet high school, Stanton College Preparatory School, which at the time was ranked as one of the top high schools in the country. She passed the information along to other friends whose children had good grades and test scores, and Elopre was admitted along with a few of her friends.

Stanton’s International Baccalaureate program was not only predominantly white, but populated with children whose parents were well-educated. “They had been taking pre-ACT classes since 7thgrade,” Elopre said. “There had to be people from diverse backgrounds who could have been admitted to Stanton’s Baccalaureate program, but they weren’t because they didn’t know about the opportunity.” She feels that this reflective in the social constructs we see in today’s society due to lack of equity in opportunities provided to people from different socioeconomic classes as well as racial backgrounds. 

But even her mother’s tireless advocacy couldn’t fully prepare Elopre for Stanton. She quickly realized that she was under-prepared. She recalled being in a class in which the Manhattan Project was being discussed, and she raised her hand to ask what the Manhatten Project was. “The whole class laughed at me,” she said. “It was horrible. So I decided to take the books home and try to teach myself. I didn’t want to be embarrassed again by not knowing something.”

By the time Elopre was a senior, her hard work had paid off and she was making straight As. In addition to dedication to her studies, her experiences in an organization called Jack and Jill of America had given her the skills to network, “blend in,” and master etiquette. Still, she encountered racism regularly. One student at Stanton openly used the “N” word with impunity and drove a truck covered with confederate flags. Class debates, including one in which some students argued that immigrants to America suffered more than slaves, exposed stark racial divides.

Elopre looks back at her time at Stanton with fondness, as she feels she used those experiences to learn how effectively persuade people who disagree with her, and how to navigate challenging environments. Ultimately, she was a member of a graduating class which boasted what, at that time, was the largest number of minority graduates in history for Stanton’s International Baccalaureate program – five.

Graduation from Stanton had another advantage: an academic scholarship at Florida State University. Elopre received a notification from Florida state that she qualified for such a scholarship, so she applied to FSU and between FSU and Florida’a Bright Futures scholarship, received a full ride - to FSU.

Elopre laughed as she recalled that FSU was the only college to which she applied. Her mother had limited experience with the college application process, so Elopre wasn’t aware that most students applied to multiple schools. 

Her time at Florida State went by “in a blur,” she said. Attending night classes to receive her Medical Assistant’s license in order for her to work during the day. Elopre was pre-med and finished her undergraduate degree in three years, majoring in biology and minoring in chemistry.

Elopre had always known she wanted to be a doctor, from the time she was a small child playing with a toy doctor’s kit. But in order to make this dream feasible, she took a year between college and medical school to study for the MCAT and to teach high school – back at Stanton, her alma mater. During that time, Elopre’s mother completed college as well.

While teaching 9thgrade honors biology full-time at Stanton, Elopre studied for the MCAT. She couldn’t afford preparatory courses, so, she said, “I bought this huge MCAT prep book and I just read the book.” She smiled. “I don’t recommend that for anybody.”

But Elopre’s MCAT scores, paired with her grades, were sufficient for admission to the University of Florida School of Medicine. She loved medical school, she said. She still experienced some racism during medical school from patients, peers and teachers, but did not allow this to sideline her ambitions to become an Internist. 

During her internal medicine residency at UAB, Elopre met Edward Hooks, M.D., who inspired her to become an Infectious Diseases physician. He spurred her interest through numerous conversations about what most compelled her about medicine.

When Elopre was 10, a beloved uncle, Billy, had passed away at only 28 years old. Conventional wisdom in the family held that he had died of cancer. In reality, Billy had died of AIDS. Exhausted with the regimen of AIDS treatment options that existed in the early 1990s, Billy had ultimately decided to reject all medicinal avenues and succumbed to the disease. 

Elopre didn’t discover the real cause of Billy’s death until she was in her teens, but it distressed her that someone who had been fundamentally kind and good had felt that he had to hide his true self from his family; that even after his death, the real nature of his illness wouldn’t be discussed because of the stigma associated with it. 

“I didn’t want anyone to have to suffer like that,” Elopre said. As she began working with HIV patients in clinic, and heard heartbreaking stories from young African American men who felt that their disease was a fitting punishment for having relationships with other men, she realized this work was her calling. She began to study the epidemiology of HIV, as well as the cultural and social factors contributing to its disproportionate impact on black communities.

Now, Elopre hopes to move the needle on health disparities in the South, and makes a daily impact on the lives of Alabama residents both through her research and through her clinical work.  She has also worked to increase diversity within UAB’s General Medical Education by pioneering a strategic plan to increase diversity. Her past experiences in educational settings emphasized the importance of diversity within all facets of training to become a doctor to abate unconscious biases and prejudices. 

To those following after her, Elopre advised, “Be confident and believe in yourself. Do what you are passionate about, because there’s always a way to make that work. If you’re not doing what you love, then it’s not worth doing.”