Driven by her passion for health care and social justice, LaShyra “Lash” Nolen MPP/MD 2024 will use her degrees in public policy and medicine to make a difference in the lives of others.
At Harvard Medical School, she was the first Black woman to be class president but as she wrote in TeenVogue, “What’s the point of being the first if you end up being the last?” Now at Harvard Kennedy School, she’s learning how to use policy to make an impact on the health of her future patients.
We spoke with her about her experiences growing up, what inspired her to come to HKS and HMS, and why she stepped into a boxing ring at the MGM Music Hall in downtown Boston in October to literally fight for a good cause.
Tell us a little about yourself. Where did you grow up?
Home for me is Los Angeles, California. I was born in Compton where I spent my formative years and was raised by my incredible mother, Ty Harps, who was a single parent for most of my life. I watched my mother work hard to ensure that I had the best opportunities in life and knew I wanted to spend mine making the most of her sacrifices. Growing up I was also surrounded by the love and support of my grandparents, aunts, and cousins who instilled in me my values and care for my community.
Was there a pivotal moment that led to you to HKS?
A collection of life experiences and people brought me to HKS.
The first was when my family moved from LA to Rancho Cucamonga, a predominately white suburb 50 miles east of LA. The move was a major culture shock for me. Suddenly, I was the only Black girl in my advanced science classes and resources we didn’t have in Compton were now plentiful. That’s when I started to understand the concept of inequity and became curious about how to address it.
As a pre-med student at Loyola Marymount University, I had an incredible professor, Dr. Heather Tarleton, who taught courses on public health and policy. She was the first person to equip me with the language to articulate how inequity impacted my community and how policy could be a solution to fix it. Dr. Tarleton is also a breast cancer survivor and was one of my inspirations for stepping into the ring with Haymakers for Hope.
At HMS, I also met mentors like Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford and Dr. Alister Martin who are HKS alumni and powerful examples of how to meld a career in patient advocacy and policy. They pushed me to come to HKS, but my life experiences are what really affirmed this path for me.
What motivated you to pursue your MD and Master in Public Policy (MPP) degrees?
While I was seeing patients a medical student, there were so many instances where I felt like I was too late. I had patients who suffered from preventable illnesses related to not being able to find affordable housing, stable job opportunities, or reliable transportation. I needed to go further upstream—closer to the policies and structures that impact the health of my patients. Having a clear understanding of how structural oppression affects my patients’ health is essential for my vision of holistic healing.
Balancing two academic programs is demanding. How have you maintained a healthy balance and stay motivated?
I always tried to stay connected to my “why.” It wasn’t easy to mull through supply-demand curves and R-coding assignments, but I reminded myself these tools will help me better serve my patients. I was lucky to find a community of inspiring, courageous, and brilliant friends through the Center for Public Leadership (CPL) and activities such as PalTrek. I’ve also gained incredible mentors like Professor Khalil Muhammad and Akiesha Ortiz at CPL. I’ve learned to lean on people I love for strength and balance because they keep me connected to my “why,” too.
How did you learn about Haymakers for Hope?
One of my closest friends fought in a Haymakers for Hope match and seeing his journey inspired me to look into the organization. The Haymakers mission resonated with me and I loved that I could raise funds to contribute to charities I chose, which led to a once-in-a-lifetime experience to box in front of over 1,000 people!
I’ve always wanted to learn how to box—it involves so many components: footwork, rhythm, cardio, strength, and strategy. I was a basketball player growing up and am now a distance runner, so I knew the aspects I enjoyed of these sports would come together nicely as a boxer. Even though I felt confident in my athletic ability, the learning curve was steep. Most of the other participants had some level of boxing experience. I had to learn a lot, but it motivated me to go even harder.
How did you prepare for your match?
I started my training in late June. Before then I didn’t own boxing gloves and had no idea how to throw a punch. I was placed at BoxSmith with trainer Jess Smith who was a Haymakers alum. I worked out 5-6 times a week, 3-4 hours a day. This included conditioning bag classes, personal training sessions, running, strength and agility training, and sparring. I also had to change my diet to high-protein, low-fat foods, which was very different from the bubble tea diet I indulged in before.
How did you feel after the match?
So loved. Finishing the fight and being welcomed by smiles and hugs from my closest family and friends meant the world. Some of them traveled from California and others took paid time off to make it out. There were even folks who came that I didn’t know personally but saw my promo video on social media. I was also thankful for those who watched online and who helped me raise nearly $20,000 for breast cancer survivorship.
I set out to do this really random, physically challenging thing and my people showed up like they always do. I don’t take that for granted. I also went through fight camp with three other women and felt so loved and supported by them throughout the process. I am blessed to have the community I do and after the fight I was just thinking, “We did it.”
What did you gain from this experience?
I’ve gained so much. First, I’ve fallen in love with boxing and hope to continue. I’m now training with Luis Santiago at 1 More Rep Athletics—the first ever boxing gym in Roxbury—and am looking forward to growing as a boxer. Second, I’ve become more mentally and physically resilient. During this process, if I wasn’t training, I was fundraising. If I wasn’t fundraising, I was preparing my medical residency applications. It felt nonstop. But coming out on the other side physically and mentally stronger reaffirmed that If I show up every day and put in the work, any goal is attainable.
You mentioned always trying to stay connected to your “why.” So, what is your why for stepping into the ring?
I’ve seen firsthand how cancer has negatively impacted my patients, family, and friends. I was fighting for my grandfather, Tony Anderson, my honorary grandparents, Sonya and Thomas Hall, and my mentor, Dr. Tarleton.
The funds I raised went toward the Ellie Fund and Sisters Network Incorporated, which support Black and low-income women and help fund their breast cancer treatments. I chose these organizations because systemic racism impacts cancer outcomes and I wanted to raise awareness about these racial health disparities. This was a drop in the bucket compared to the systemic changes needed to address these inequities, but my hope is that it’s a reminder that individual fights are part of a collective one. If we show up for each other every day—even a medical student turning into an amateur boxer—equity for all is attainable.
Photos by Hensley Carrasco and provided by LaShyra "Lash" Nolen.