As Jaurel Harley started down the stairway from the top floor of the Marketplace in Cruz Bay, a woman stepped out of the WAPA office, waved, and called out, “Dr. Harley!”
Jaurel waved back with a big smile, and then said almost to herself, “‘Dr. Harley.’ I don’t even know who that is. I’m just Jaurel.”
The title of “Doctor” still sounds unfamiliar to this 27-year-old St. Johnian. Modest and soft spoken, she looks more like a neat, petite college student than a full-fledged medical doctor with a degree from Boston University.
But anyone who’s known Jaurel is not surprised that she’s now beginning a three-year residency in Pediatrics at the University of South Florida in Tampa. She’s wanted to become a doctor since she was a girl, and she’s used her brain, compassion and grit to get to her goal.
What’s inspiring about this story, according to her mother Patrice, is that Jaurel is the product of public education all the way through– from Head Start, to the Guy Benjamin School, to the Julius E. Sprauve School, to Ivanna Eudora Kean High School, and the University of the Virgin Islands. “She proves it can be done,” said Patrice, a highly-regarded public elementary school teacher who retired after a long career on St. John.
Jaurel’s interest in medicine began at home. The third child born to Patrice and her husband Julien Harley (who served as St. John’s fire chief and island administrator), Jaurel grew up in a close family that faced a major challenge: Her brother Jamien, three years older, was born with severe cerebral palsy.
Jaurel and her older sister Julice (now the assistant to the executive director of the Virgin Islands Port Authority) took on many caretaking tasks for Jamien when their parents participated in professional or community activities.
Making accommodations for Jamien, who was never able to walk or talk, felt normal to Jaurel. “My life didn’t seem much different from anyone else’s,” she said. “I was still doing schoolwork, having sleepovers with friends, but when our family went on trips, and when we saw how people reacted to Jamien, it seemed different,” she said.
Her interest in medicine was piqued when she saw another child with cerebral palsy. “He had the same diagnosis as Jamien, but he was verbal and looked normal, and was walking around. This raised questions for me,” she said.
Upon graduation from Kean High in 2006, Jaurel entered into UVI’s Early Medical School Selection Program (EMSSP). This program allows motivated students to attend classes at Boston University during the summer, and if they continue to qualify, to spend their senior year at B.U. and transition into B.U.’s medical school.
Jaurel and another classmate from Kean High, Elisha Jno-Baptiste, both made the cut. (Jno-Baptiste now practices medicine in Dallas.) The two studied together and kept their spirits up as they faced the increasing academic challenges.
“I never seem to think that I’m a smart person. I always felt self-conscious about what I know,” said Jaurel. “U.V.I. was as easy as high school. B.U. was the first time I was really challenged. I didn’t know where to go to ask for help. It’s tough to navigate on your own.”
When Jamien passed away in 2015, Jaurel struggled to stay on track. She now feels that she waited too long to acknowledge her distress. Fortunately, her parents and friends offered support when she doubted herself, and she now advises others to “Seek out someone who’s doing what you’re doing and reach out. Don’t stay in your own little box.”
She practices what she preaches by offering support through a group chat to other medical students in the UVI/BU pipeline.
Moving to Boston, one of the nation’s major medical hubs, opened Jaurel’s eyes to a world of opportunities. She wishes more young Virgin Islanders would become aware of the many career choices in health care and in other professions. “Because we’re on a small island, we don’t get to see a lot of careers out there,” she said. “We don’t have as much to aspire to.”
Jaurel would like to see more young people go off island, develop their professional careers, and come back to the islands. That’s what she plans to do– although she doesn’t know exactly when that may be. For the next three years, she’ll specialize in pediatric medicine, and possibly follow that with further training in neonatology.
As she looked ahead to her return to Tampa, she added, “I would like to thank the St. John community. Every time I come home, everyone is always so welcoming, telling me how proud they are of me.” Then she was off to meet a friend–from her days as a preschooler at Head Start –for lunch.