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Noteworthy graduates: Carla Boutin-Foster, medical school dean

New York Teacher
Carla Boutin-Foster
Jonathan Fickies

Carla Boutin-Foster is a world away from the 5-year-old who spoke only Creole when her parents — sights firmly set on the American dream — brought her to Brooklyn from Haiti. Yet she’s back in her old neighborhood. Boutin-Foster attended public schools in Brooklyn and Queens that nurtured her work ethic and her science talent. After earning her undergraduate degree at New York University, she returned to East Flatbush for medical school. Today, with her physician husband and her sons, Boutin-Foster makes her home near where she grew up, and she makes her living where she earned her medical degree, at SUNY Downstate Medical Center. “It’s very warm and humbling to think about how I’ve come full circle,” she said. Boutin-Foster did her residency at Weill Cornell New York Presbyterian Hospital, then specialized in internal medicine and did research in cardiology for more than 20 years. Four years ago, she returned to Downstate as associate dean in the office of Diversity Education and Research. In that role, she builds pipelines for blacks and Latinos — underrepresented in careers in medicine — from high school and undergraduate programs to medical school, providing support throughout the arduous process. “They may not have people guiding them,” she said, “or they may have people telling them they can’t do this.” Boutin-Foster tells them they can.

When I moved here in 1974, I lived in the Vanderveer Projects in Flatbush. I went to PS 269 for 1st and 2nd grades, then to PS 208, where Delores Moats was my 5th-grade teacher. I didn’t appreciate then how much impact she would have in my life.

Ms. Moats was both teacher and disciplinarian. And she was tough. When we would act up, we feared she’d tell our parents. She’d say, “This is not tolerated in college.” And I’d think, “We’re in the 5th grade. What is she talking about?” But she was the first person to mention college.

After all our hard work in her class, at Christmas and at the end of the year, we would party, with music and games and food. It was just our class. We looked forward to it, and it made us feel special. It taught us to work hard first and the rewards will come later. 

Sixth grade began, and I relaxed and started to get in trouble. My teacher, Sandra Little, didn’t know what to do with me. She went to Ms. Moats, who told her to talk to my dad. My father said, “Have you lost your mind?” The expectation was that you’d do well in school. It’s like that in a lot of immigrant communities because that’s why they came here. Back home not everyone could go to school.

I went from not listening to being a model student, thanks to Ms. Moats expecting the best and showing me the possibility of college, and Ms. Little recognizing I could do better, seeking help from Ms. Moats, who knew me, and making sure I did what I needed to do. I never again thought of misbehaving in school.

I moved to Queens Village and went to IS 109, where my life changed again when I met my best friend, Diahann Alleyne. We did everything together. We were bookworms, and we studied together. We were together in SP (a program for advanced students), where you had to maintain certain grades. The fear of not being in SP together pushed us. 

In 1983, we went to August Martin HS in Jamaica. Our desire to do well increased because we were working toward this elusive thing Ms. Moats called college. We were in the top classes again and did well in math and science. Our science teacher, Bill Bush, inspired our love of biology. He would ask us to volunteer in class and to tutor, and I began to see myself as a leader. 

We were scientists, and we were good at it. Mr. Bush reinforced this, recommending us for the math and science Olympics and a science program at City College. He recognized everyone’s talents and gave all his students jobs, but when it came to implementing the math or science curriculum, he called on “Boutin and Alleyne.” 

One of our high school classmates became pregnant. I don’t think we understood the physical impact of pregnancy on a young body or its social impact on a young girl. But it kept her out of school for three months. So when Mr. Bush taught us the reproductive system, we said we had to teach other girls so they could stay in school. We figured that meant becoming doctors, and when Diahann and I started NYU together, we were both pre-med. 

NYU was a culture shock. I had been salutatorian at August Martin, but at NYU, I struggled. It was so different and there were thousands of kids. The work ethic instilled in me kept me going. 

As told to reporter Suzanne Popadin

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