Joseph Semien Jr. was leading a double life. To his parents, he was as a church-going teenager who had had some behavioral challenges in school but whose high marks had him on the track to college. But when he was out of their sight, “Lil’ Joe” was distributing drugs and fighting – in the literal sense of the word – to protect his street reputation. Even after he enrolled at Xavier University, Semien still had one foot in the streets. He was taking pre-med classes and hustling drugs on the side.
It was on Xavier’s campus that Semien met and befriended Pierre Johnson and Maxime Madhere, who also dreamed of becoming doctors. Johnson had grown up in a violent Chicago home where both his parents had stayed strung out on drugs. Madhere, who had adopted the appearance of toughness to survive in New York and Washington, almost hadn’t made it to college. Two months after he’d argued with a guy who deliberately bumped him on a Washington sidewalk, that antagonist caught him unawares. “Remember me? You ain’t so tough with a gun in your face, huh?”
Semien and Johnson are both OB/GYNs. Madhere’s an anesthesiologist. They describe their journey in a new book called “Pulse of Perseverance: Three Black Doctors on Their Journey to Success,” which they will sign and discuss at Xavier Thursday evening, Feb. 15.
It’s not giving too much away to say that Xavier University’s philosophy of meeting students where they are and fostering a spirit of community rather than competition was crucial to the three doctors’ success.
Semien, who practices medicine in Lake Charles, said by phone Monday that writing his life story was “probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.” That’s significant because it wasn’t easy for him to make it through college or med school or to pass the many required tests along the way.
“Over the years, I left that past behind me,” Semien said. The book reveals just how hard it was for him to extricate himself from that street life. Writing the book meant revealing to people who only know him as Dr. Semien that he used to be “Lil’ Joe,” the drug-peddling street tough. But he had to do it because he and Johnson and Madhere want their book to inspire children – especially those whose teachers may be writing them off as lost causes.
Semien was serving tables as a college student when a woman said, “Joseph? Joseph Semien?” It was his fifth-grade teacher. Proud that she’d remembered his name, he smiled and said, “Yes, ma’am.” And she said, “I thought you’d be dead by now.”
“Think about that,” he said Monday morning, “Think about that.” Obviously, he wasn’t dead, and he explained that he was in college, that he was going to be a doctor.
“Hmmm,” he remembers her saying. “Well, good luck with that.”
In the book, Semien writes, “I was sick and tired of the low expectations everyone had for me, and I turned that anger into my impetus.”
In a September 2015 article called “A Prescription for More Black…