When Julen Harris, ’17, MD, MPH interviewed at the University of Minnesota Medical School in 2013, it was the dead of winter and -50 degrees with windchill. As a New Yorker, she had never been to Minnesota before but had heard of the U from a friend who had introduced her to Mary Tate, director of Minority Affairs and Diversity at the Medical School. Ultimately, Tate’s ability to make her feel at home, financial assistance and the Medical School’s commitment to excellence in primary care were three deciding factors that led Dr. Harris to pursue her medical education in the Twin Cities.

During her time in Minnesota, away from all of her family and friends in New York, Julen built a new community centered around a shared commitment to building more sustainable diversity and inclusion in our school through initiatives, such as pipeline and mentorship programs. A big part of that community continued to be Tate.

“I call her my ‘Minnesota Mom,’” Dr. Harris said. “She served as our SNMA faculty liaison, so we met all the time to discuss events, pipeline initiatives and other mentoring opportunities. But, her biggest impact was in the ways in which she personally supported me and other students through the ups and downs of medical school.”

Dr. Harris became involved in the Ladder Program, where the full continuum of mentorship gave her hope for the future of medicine. During her second year of medical school, she served as co-president on the board for the Medical School’s chapter of the Student National Medical Association (SNMA), a national organization committed to supporting students underrepresented in medicine, addressing the needs of underserved communities and increasing the number of socially-conscious physicians. 

“Seeing what other people were already doing in the community, as I was trying to navigate my own career, gave me a clear vision of what I wanted my own future to look like. I wanted to lift people up,” Dr. Harris said.

Since graduating in 2017, after finishing her pediatrics residency at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in the spring of 2020 and beginning her adolescent fellowship at New York Presbyterian-Columbia University Irving Medical Center, Dr. Harris has remained steadfast in her passion for working with kids of all ages, but especially adolescents, where important family touchpoints are built in. 

“I’ll never forget my first winter in Minnesota. I thought I wouldn’t survive it,” Dr. Harris said.

Luckily, once the winter thaw set in, Dr. Harris soon fell in love with the Twin Cities. Her family is from Jamaica, so she quickly fell in line with the lake life culture of Minnesota as well as the breweries and great food. She also valued her exposure to rural medicine and the culture of medicine we have in Minnesota. One of her most formative experiences was the Urban Community Ambulatory Medicine (UCAM) rotation at United Family Medicine Clinic at the beginning of her fourth year. She had the opportunity to participate in small group discussions around medicine and social justice and the ability of physicians to make a difference in patients’ lives. This experience led her to get involved with another student group, White Coats for Black Lives (WC4BL). 

“The George Floyd murder hit close to home in more ways than one. It laid bare a lot of things,  one of which is that an aspect of the culture in Minnesota is to not openly confront issues of racial justice,” Dr. Harris said. “I was so glad to see our legacy upheld with the current generation of SNMA and WC4BL members, who continue to advocate for change on campus and in the broader community.” 

Another part of Dr. Harris’ legacy lives on in the form of the Mary Tate SNMA Alumni Scholarship. Created by Dr. Harris and other co-graduates who served on the board of SNMA, the scholarship serves to honor Tate’s legacy of support, community and diversity. 

“We wanted to fund a scholarship for students who, like ourselves, were dedicated to serving underserved populations, focusing on health disparities and underrepresented in medicine pipelines because we face many different hurdles,” she said.

Dr. Harris and her founding members remain steadfast in their dedication to giving back to the fund each year, even if it’s only incremental increases. “We’re all still early in our careers, so it’s not very much, but we encourage each other to give slightly more each year.”

Dr. Harris and her SNMA peers stay in touch throughout the year, most recently gathering on Zoom before the holidays.

“It’s hard to keep up the same level of community. We all miss being able to stop by Mary’s office on the sixth floor Mayo for one of her legendary hugs. But, we know our spirit lives on in the Mary Tate SNMA Alumni Scholarship and all of the programs that are continuing on this important work,” Dr. Harris said. “I’ll always be grateful for my time here at my home-away-from-home and hope future students like me can find the same type of family I found.”