Farah Mechref and Marilyn Mathew hope to bring people a greater awareness of their own implicit biases.
Farah Mechref wants to specialize in global medicine and work in refugee camps with Doctors Without Borders.
Marilyn Mathew wants to work in academic medicine as a pediatric oncologist, helping train future doctors while treating kids with cancer.
Both want to make a difference in the world. That's not exactly a surprise – many college students and recent graduates have the same goal.
But few students actively work to improve the world while still in college – and that's what really sets these two apart.
How they met
Farah and Marilyn were both high achievers early on. They took International Baccalaureate classes in high school to earn college credit before even arriving at Texas Tech. They knew even before starting as freshmen that they wanted to attend medical school, so they both applied for the Undergraduate to Medical School Initiative (UMSI), a program through the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC) in cooperation with the Texas Tech Honors College that offers entering first-year Honors students guaranteed admission to the TTUHSC – without taking the Medical College Admission Test – after they complete a bachelor's degree.
They met at their UMSI interviews in February 2014.
“We happened to sit next to each other on the floor right before our interviews,” Marilyn said. “We were both freaking out about the interviews and the tests coming up.”
“Our interview rooms just happened to be right next to one another,” Farah added. “She started a conversation, and we realized we had quite a few things in common.”
But after the interviews, they went their separate ways – Marilyn headed back to Austin, Farah stayed in Lubbock – and they lost touch. They met again at orientation in June 2014 and discovered they were living in the same residence hall.
The new friends found comfort in each other during their first semester at Texas Tech when both Marilyn, a cell and molecular biology major, and Farah, a biochemistry major, ended up disliking their lab partners.
“It was a lot of effort on each of our parts when we were pulling the teams, so we decided to work together our second semester,” Marilyn said. “Ever since then, we took chemistry labs together.”
It wasn't just a personal issue with their old partners – Farah and Marilyn needed top grades to make their medical school dreams a reality. Since they knew they were both in the same boat, they joined forces.
“We knew we would be together a long time, so at the end of our sophomore year, Marilyn moved in with me and we became roommates,” Farah said.
That's when they got their big idea. While progressing on their paths to one day heal physical illnesses, they could take a step toward healing one of society's ills.
“From the beginning of our friendship, people would make assumptions about who was Marilyn and who was Farah,” Farah said. “So that's how we began the poem.”
You see, Farah is very light-skinned with light brown hair and blue eyes. Marilyn, on the other hand, has dark skin, eyes and hair.
Based on one of Marilyn's favorite poems – “Origin Story” by Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye – Marilyn and Farah wrote a poem that begins with their identities switched, so “Farah” is dark-skinned and “Marilyn” is light-skinned. Halfway through the poem, they reveal their true identities.
“We always thought it was really funny that people just made an assumption about who was who,” Farah said. “We talked about how her name, stereotypically, would fit someone who looked like me and my name would, stereotypically, fit someone who looked like her.”
“It happened so often that we started to realize even people who classified themselves as more open-minded would make the mistake,” Marilyn added. “And it's not necessarily bad or anything, it's how we live our lives. But it's something you should be cautious of, I think.”
The pair first performed their poem, “Find Your Mate,” at the Pride Poetry Slam in November 2017. On the spot, they made an impromptu addition.
“We thought it would be really powerful if she wore a hijab,” Farah said. “Nobody would think anything of it if they saw someone of her complexion wearing a hijab. But it makes a big difference once she takes it off. It's a symbolic gesture.”
They say they always enjoy seeing their audiences' reactions to the moment of revelation.
“You can always hear a slight gasp right in that middle part when I take it off,” Marilyn laughed.
But it's what they hear after their performance that's most rewarding to them.
“When we performed in front of audiences that didn't know who we were,” Farah said, “it was really fun to have them come up to us afterward and have them say, ‘You really made me think. You made me realize my own stereotypes, and that's not something I've thought of before.'”
Farah and Marilyn, who began medical school in August, have now performed their poem at many events around Lubbock, including the Chamber of Commerce Diversity Summit and the YWCA Women of Excellence Awards Dinner. They even performed at one of J&B Coffee Company's open mic nights.
“It's funny because the first part is so boring,” Marilyn laughed. “People are like, ‘Why are you telling us about your lives? This is a stupid poem.' You can see them glaze over until I take the hijab off, and then they go, ‘Oh. Now it makes sense.'”
With each performance, they hope to share their message with a wider audience.
“That's the real value of the poem,” Farah said. “We both want it to have a big impact on the way people treat each other. You literally have no idea who someone is based on their appearance alone.”