Things I've Learned: Tracy M. Downs '88

This former Kingsmen running back and Truman Scholar, now a University of Wisconsin-Madison surgeon specializing in urologic cancers, is at the top of his game.

Photo: John Maniaci/University Hospital, Madison, Wisconsin

Note: "Things I've Learned" is an occasional series of alumni reflections in CLU Magazine

There’s a clarity that people have when they hear the word cancer. Suddenly, the difference between small potatoes and big potatoes in life is really clear.

In our clinical research experience, we have discovered things that allow us to predict the aggressiveness of a cancer and advise a patient whether to go right to surgery or whether we think they’d benefit from chemotherapy beforehand.

As a urologic oncologist, I get a front row seat each day to see the power of the human spirit. Many of my patients have to make tough decisions about which therapy to pursue for the treatment of their cancer. Each of these individuals has an “extra gear” or ability to dig deeper inside of themselves. I see them demonstrate this resiliency on a daily basis, and I guess I am their biggest fan. I hope I have that gear.

My mom was awesome, just really loving. She didn’t say you have to do this or that as a career. But you knew that you should do well in school.

Once as a junior in high school, I said, Mom, you know, they let you have a C average and you can still play sports. I’m still eligible. And she looked at me pretty firm, kind of like, Don’t test me.

I’m 100 percent sure that I wouldn’t be doing what I am now if I didn’t go to Cal Lu. It was a school where I could go and speak to Dr. Barbara Collins and say, I know it doesn’t look like I’m trying, but I really am. Can you tell me what I’m doing wrong to prepare for your exams? And she would tell me, and I would do it, and I saw the results.

At the annual Association of American Medical Colleges meeting, I heard Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski III, the president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), tell a similar story about his experience at a small historically black college, and right then I just said, That’s it. Had I gone to a larger school in California or an Ivy league school, and gotten those same grades at the start, I probably would not have had access to a professor, maybe just a teaching assistant. If my grades didn’t improve, then I would have defaulted to my natural strength, which was math.

I’m a big proponent of getting the right-sized school, because it’s a long journey. You think college is the be-all-end-all, but you just have so many more years ahead of you. I share that with a lot of students: Pick something that’s the right size, that’s a good fit. It’s OK. Build from there. Don’t overstretch yourself.

Probably 1 ½ or 2 percent of all full professors in my specialty are of African descent. So becoming a professor of urology mattered to me.

I would look at that number and be mad. And if you’re mad at that number, then do something about it. I was glad I was able to hang in there and reach that level. It usually takes over 10 years. Between two institutions, it took me about 14 years.

I haven’t gotten so old that I don’t remember what it felt like to be applying for medical school or what it was like to hope to become a doctor.

I was by no stretch the kid who in the fifth grade or the third grade said, I want to be a doctor when I grow up. I’m glad I wasn’t, even though I admire the people who were.

As an associate dean, I speak with a lot of undergraduate students about their aspirations. I can’t share all I know because it’s a lot for a person to take in at a single point in time.

It’s like a quarterback who’s new and can’t tell the coverage: Are they in zone or are they man-to-man, and why is that linebacker dropping back? After a while you see it all and you know how things are going to unfold.

God doesn’t tell us everything because we probably couldn’t handle it. I look back and see how things unfolded and, wow. This October, my wife and I have been married 25 years. We have a 16-year-old son. We adopted a little girl at birth; she’ll be 4 in January.

If we can be more inclusive about who has the opportunity to enter our undergraduate institutions, this can lead to a wider group of people being successful in all domains of society. Maybe their GPA is off by 0.2 points. Maybe their test scores are not in the top 10 percent. But if you just want the top 10 percent and are not willing to give the promising late bloomer an opportunity, you will not be admitting an incoming class that is demographically and socioeconomically diverse.

When that person does come with those scores, maybe they’re not going to close the gap in four years. I’d be a prime example. But look at how they did when they went to the next four years and then once they got out; look how they did at that point. It is hard to close a gap in a short period of time, and individuals in higher education need a long view.

Dr. Downs assists Cal Lutheran’s Science Initiative as a Commission for the Sciences member.

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