Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Building a Foundation

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Building a Foundation

Article excerpt

For nearly two decades, putting students of color in Los Angeles on a path to medical and health professions has taken a village - a legion of teachers, tutors and mentors, as well as deep-pocketed donors and parents eager to propel their children further in life than they've ever been.

It has also taken the devotion of an individual who's determined to immerse Black and Hispanic students in STEM, and the belief that "they can do anything."

Since spearheading the Saturday Science Academy II in 2000, this has been her way of expanding her students' world and equipping them for a journey that could lead to medical school and beyond. But these days, Lorraine Grey, director of the Saturday Science Academy II (SSAII), based at the historically Black Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles, talks almost as much about being "ready to retire and pass the baton" as she does about ensuring that her students of color, no matter how young, know that a career in medicine is possible.

Nearly 20 years ago, when Grey, a former nurse, was tapped to run SSAII, it wasn't long before this urgent call went out to the nation's medical schools: they need to "bridge the appalling diversity gap that separates medicine from the society it professes to serve." It wasn't just a call for equal access to the profession - it was a call to improve public health. Studies were clearly showing that diversity among physicians meant better health for patients of color, better access for the poor and underserved, and more.

But even as the long-running SSAII thrives and newer pipeline programs such as MedAchieve at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine spring up to help move the needle on diversity in the physician pipeline, U.S. medical school classes are only slightly more racially and ethnically diverse than they were in 1997, according to new findings from a team of University of Michigan Medical School researchers who have studied these issues.

At about 12 percent, Black, Native American and Hispanic students are underrepresented in the nation's medical schools. But long before they apply for medical school admissions, most face a steep climb, says Grey.

That's because students of color disproportionately attend low-performing elementary and secondary schools, and few are directed into college prep and science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) courses that would prepare them for pre-med studies. Maybe worse yet, Grey adds, many don't know that medical school or being a physician are options for them.

Starting from the bottom

Focus further up the so-called pipeline, "on the very youngest college students who have an eye on medical school or another health-related graduate program," in terms of intervention, write the University of Michigan researchers in a new article in Academic Medicine. Based on evidence from other studies, and from their own evaluation of a University of Michigan premed program, the researchers also conclude that the support and training a student receives in their earliest years of premed studies can factor into them pursuing medical school or other graduate health sciences.

"We will be able to improve diversity in medicine only if we are able to create and sustain these links, said Dr. Adrianne Haggins, a co-author of the study.

In Drew's Saturday Science Academy, organizers reach down far to fill that same pipeline with students of color. Capturing future physicians of color means sowing seeds as early as pre-kindergarten. Those early years provide a critical window of opportunity to dispel myths, suggests Grey, like the STEM fields "are too boring, too hard, or inaccessible to African-American and Latino youth. …

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