Extending the pipeline

A U mentoring program helps put a greater diversity of high school students on the path to medical school
By Suzy Frisch

High school senior Ramla Mohamud is excited about becoming a doctor, and her University of Minnesota Medical School mentor aims to keep it that way. Both are from communities underrepresented in medicine—a connection that helps build Mohamud's confidence and resolve, she says.

Sabrina Ali, her classmate at Higher Ground Academy in St. Paul, knew from a very young age that she wanted to pursue a medical career. She says her U of M mentors exposed her to different types of medicine and helped solidify her plans to become a doctor. 

Ali and Mohamud, whose families are from Somalia, belong to the first group of teenagers to be paired with University medical students through the Twin Cities chapter of the Student National Medical Association’s High School Mentoring Program. 

Both teens say the program helped keep them on course. “It broadened our horizons so we could know more about what we’re getting into and what we need to do to get where we want to be,” says Ali. Adds Mohamud, “We would say we want to be doctors, but the mentors kept us on that path by reminding us about applying for colleges or scholarships or answering our questions, like how to adapt to college from high school.”

The initial cohort was established in 2013–14 with 20 Higher Ground Academy ninth graders and first-year medical students. Typically, the pairs stay together throughout the program, and this spring, the first cohort of mentors and mentees will attend each other’s graduations. 

Mentoring early

The High School Mentoring Program aims to expand the pipeline of minority medical students much earlier by encouraging them to study STEM subjects that could spark their interest in medicine. The idea came from Nathan Wanderman, ’15 M.D., then a U of M medical student, who saw the benefits of mentoring as an AmeriCorps teacher.

Mary Tate, the Medical School’s director of minority affairs and diversity, put the wheels in motion for the pilot by building on an existing Medical School partnership with Higher Ground Academy and similar mentoring programs for premed students at the U. The mentors encourage teens to take classes that will make them competitive college applicants, give advice about taking the SAT/ACT, and share their own Medical School experiences, such as how they handled the rigorous coursework during the first two years or how clinic rotations work in different specialties.

“By the time you get into college, it’s almost too late for some of these programs. You need to be knowledgeable at the high school level to explore different professions and test them out,” says Tate. “We also want to encourage [these students]. If this is something they want to do, they will have a circle of people who will help them be successful. It can be a long venture and a lonely one for minority students.”

Bill Wilson, founder and executive director of Higher Ground, was troubled by the lack of diversity in medicine and wanted to do something to guide more students into the health professions. Many underserved students do not consider medicine as a career option, lacking role models. “At the end of the day, if we want to impact the field, we need to grow our own,” says Wilson.

He notes that high school students gain more when they are mentored by people who are close to their own age. “The peer-to-peer connections they make are very important. They understand each other better, and they can talk about their shared experiences,” says Wilson. “It’s more relevant, and the connections are very powerful.”

Increasing diversity in its Medical School is one of the University’s goals, too. On the Twin Cities campus, 53 of 170, or 31 percent, of first-year medical students are from multi-cultural backgrounds — an increase from 20 percent in 2006. On the Duluth campus, 12 of 60 first-year medical students, or 20 percent, are from multicultural backgrounds, compared with 16 percent in 2006. 

Demands for diversity 

The University wants to promote student diversity in the Medical School and across the health professions for a number of reasons, but chiefly because communities and patients want to see providers who reflect their heritage, Tate says. Hospitals and clinics want to hire physicians from different backgrounds for the same reason — because patients benefit.

By encouraging a greater diversity of students to pursue undergraduate and medical degrees, the mentoring program should “enhance the ways we help the state of Minnesota fulfill the diversity needs for health care providers,” says Tate.

Today’s students, having grown up in a more diverse society, seek classmates from a variety of cultures, too, she says. “And when we have diversity, it just enhances the experience for everyone.” 

Fourth-year medical student Huy Donguyen is a founding member of the mentoring program and Ali and Mohamud’s mentor. He wanted to give back after receiving similar mentoring through the Medical School’s Minnesota Future Doctors program. 

“I was a beneficiary of the U’s pipeline organization that helps minorities in Minnesota get to medical school. Without all of that assistance and guidance about what it takes to get into medical school, I don’t know if I would be here today,” says Donguyen, who is Vietnamese-American. “It exposes … a whole population to the medical field that otherwise might not be exposed to that career.” 

Donguyen meets with his mentees every month, staying in touch by text and email in between. He says he tries to help Mohamud and Ali keep their minds open about the variety of opportunities in science and health care. “We are trying to give them a sense of what to look forward to,” he says. “I make sure they know that the entire journey, while long and arduous, is nevertheless enjoyable and worthwhile.”

This attention from Donguyen and other Medical School mentors means a lot to Ali and Mohamud. “They have time to listen to my problems and understand me,” Mohamud says. “It’s a friend and a connection rolled into one.”   

Published on March 28, 2017

Photo above: High school students Sabrina Ali (middle) and Ramla Mohamud (right) ask their medical student mentor Huy Donguyen about practical things like applying for scholarships and which classes to take to best prepare themselves for college. (Photos: Brady Willette)

Huy Donguyen, Sabrina Ali, and Ramla Mohamud enjoyed getting to know each other over the past four years through a mentoring program. This spring they’ll attend each other’s graduation ceremonies.

Supporting future physicians

There are many ways the Medical School reaches out to current and potential students who are from communities underrepresented in medicine and supports them while on campus. The Minnesota Future Doctors program admits 10 college-age students each year to help them develop a competitive portfolio for applying to medical school. That support includes help with MCAT preparation, guidance on the American Medical College application, and opportunities to shadow physicians and participate in research.

In addition, the Minority Association of Pre-Medical Students and the Student National Medical Association both provide mentoring and guidance to current and aspiring medical students. Events held throughout the year, such as the Physician Networking Event and poster sessions, help medical students build connections with doctors and enhance their research and presentation skills. 

Students from the Duluth campus participate in Minnesota Future Doctors as well as other programs that encourage underrepresented students to pursue medical school. The Center of American Indian and Minority Health offers the Native Americans into Medicine program, while Pathways to Advanced Degrees provides a summer academic research program, workshops, and faculty-directed research opportunities. 

The University’s new B.A./M.D. pipeline program, offered jointly by the Medical School and College of Liberal Arts, is another effort to invest in future physicians earlier in their education and create a more diverse workforce. The first cohort of up to 10 students will start next fall.


Diversity across the Medical School  

The Medical School has commissioned an expert panel to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion throughout the school’s curriculum, teaching, research, service, and clinical environments. The 28-member committee, chaired by Dimple Patel, M.S., associate dean of admissions, and radiology professor Alex McKinney, M.D., will collect data on the school’s current climate and diversity initiatives, identify best practices at other institutions, and develop a diversity plan with measurable outcomes over the next few months.