Empowerment Happens When You Own Your Labels: Dr. Auriel August's Journey Back to the Ring

Empowerment Happens When You Own Your Labels: Dr. Auriel August's Journey Back to the Ring

If there is a broad way to describe the nature of Dr. Auriel August, to set the context for this story, it’s this: she made two critical discoveries about herself before she turned 10 years old, deciding she wanted to be a surgeon at eight and becoming an equestrian at nine. 

It is with this strongly embedded sense of identity and passion that Auriel has navigated life, weaving a rich tapestry of experiences that, as she puts it, makes her unafraid of the concept of labels. She’s created a shining example of a woman who chooses to own the labels assigned to her -- horse girl, Black, gay, engineer, Doctor -- in order to helps others see the same path forward.

Growing up in Boynton Beach, Florida, just to the north of Wellington, "equestrian" became an unapologetic part of Auriel’s identity when she was still in  jodhpurs. She found success at Wellington Show Stables, her skills prompting the coaching staff to pluck her from the riding school to come and ride as a part of the show team. She thrivedas a catch-rider, riding children’s hunters for sale and dabbling a bit in pony jumpers. 

But as it often goes, Auriel found she soon had to leave the horses behind, with college looming and expenses associated with the horses piled up.

“All things considered, I come from an upper middle class family, but in the horse world we were not at all upper class,” she tells me. I’m catching Auriel on the phone during a rare gap in her always-busy schedule consisting of working two jobs as a surgical resident at Stanford Medical, spending time with her fiance, Dr. Natalia Birgisson, and riding the mare she recently began leasing near her home in Palo Alto, California. Auriel possesses an instant aura of exuberant energy; she’s someone you want to spend time talking to, listening to.

“At one point, my parents had sold some stocks to pay for a lease, and they kind of told me, ‘Hey, when this money runs out, we’re out,’” she continued. “So the last three years of high school, I played other sports, and it wasn’t until I was at Duke that I discovered they had an (Intercollegiate Horse Show Association) team. I went to the interest group meeting and the fees were so much more affordable, so I was able to ride from my sophomore year on.”

Those collegiate years, as quickly as they pass, would be the last time Auriel would ride consistently until she had graduated from Duke with an engineering degree and from Dartmouth with a medical degree. It’s a challenge multitudes of equestrians encounter at some point along the way, when push comes to shove: put the horses on the back burner, build a career that could one day support a return to the riding ranks as an adult. As Auriel headed west to California to begin her residency, horses were relegated to the “later” bucket while the rest of her life took shape. 

In the midst of Auriel’s pursuits, her passion within the medical field began to take on an even clearer shape. During the summer of 2014, Auriel spent time working in a Tanzania hospital, inspiring her to tackle the issue of healthcare disparities. In 2019, she was one of twelve people selected for the Stanford Biodesign Innovation Fellowship, allowing her to direct her focus toward the concept of innovation to solve problems.

In 2020, Auriel began her fourth year of surgical residency at Stanford Medical, a milestone that would allow her to earn more money and, finally, pursue some side interests with a less punishing schedule than early resident years demand. It’s here that she credits her fiance (the two were engaged in September of 2020), for giving her the gentle nudge she needed to stop making excuses and reconnect with one of her original identities.

“Had she not encouraged me to go back to riding, I probably wouldn’t have done it,” Auriel explains now. Their relationship has always revolved around understanding what makes the other person thrive and supporting that; for Natalia, it’s writing - she’s just finished writing a novel, and for Auriel, it’s horses. “She really supports me in my riding and my work, and I do my best to make sure she has set aside writing time each week. Relationships are intentional, about creating space in your life to allow each person to thrive.”

Despite Auriel’s joy at finding herself riding, even competing, again regularly, she admits it’s bittersweet. The life of a medical professional - especially now, in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic - is not one littered with spare time. “I know this is temporary,” she says. “But now that I’m squeezing it in, it makes me see that maybe this is something I can fit in once I’m an attending (surgeon). It makes me realize that maybe I can have the life I’ve always wanted.”

Auriel competing at Paso Robles Horse Park in December 2020. Photo Lori Sortino, Essence Captured Equine Photography Group.

Auriel credits her coach, Liz Hutchinson at Avalon Equestrian, with allowing her flexibility, knowing she’ll at least always have a horse to sit on when her schedule allows in the future. For now, she squeezes in early morning rides, after-work rides, in-between-jobs rides - the juggling act of the working adult amateur is truly a feat to admire. 

But the constant juggling and scheduling and stealing of moments is worth it. The barn represents a safe haven, somewhere that feels more normal after the devastating turmoil brought about in 2020. Auriel says the pandemic has renewed her determination to make more headway in terms of innovation, design, and preparedness. “I think a lot of times, the medical field is reactionary instead of prepared,” she explains. “It’s really hard to change a system, especially healthcare, so when something like this comes up and requires rapid adaptation, we’re not prepared.”

"All the girls at the barn would wear their hair down, and I begged my parents to get a relaxer and started straightening my hair. It comes so early."

Yet amidst all of the strife, the trauma, the challenges, Auriel remains steadfast in her conviction that she will influence the future. “I want to be a visible face in academic surgery,” she told Forbes in 2019. “So young Black girls have someone to look up to and say, ‘I can be like this.’”

That familiarity of representation is something Auriel says would have benefitted her childhood self, who plainly felt the differences between herself and her white counterparts around the barn. “All the girls at the barn would wear their hair down, and I begged my parents to get a relaxer and started straightening my hair,” she recalls. “It comes so early. I think I learned very early that I was Black and different, and in east Boynton Beach there are more low-income neighborhoods where I had friends who struggled more than I did financially. Then at the barn, I was the poor kid, so I felt like I was going to stick out no matter what.”

She says the shift in momentum last year - the undeniable, much-needed acknowledgement of deeply rooted, system issues of racial disparity - has been vastly positive. “It’s become a larger generational movement,” she explains. “You’re seeing these millennials and Gen Z’ers thinking differently, in a way that might actually be able to sustain change. Recognizing the power of collective wisdom and feeling empowered is pretty new and exciting.”

Which is just one more reason why Auriel has lived her life fully embracing the idea of labels. She wants more unique, individual people to realize their own identities - however many parts of them there may be - and own them. The importance of visibility, of owning one’s own power in their identity, drives Auriel as she hurdles into every new venture. 

“For a long time, I felt like the ‘super minority’. Black, woman, gay, engineer, horse person, doctor - I was a minority in almost every space. I think it’s important to see people with those labels thriving and also understanding that hey, you don’t have to restrict yourself to one ‘box’.”

Feature photo: Lori Sortino, Essence Captured Equine Photography Group

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