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A Prescription For Success

A Prescription For Success
The Medical University of South Carolina says mentoring program is key to retaining minority medical students.
By Herb Frazier

A record-setting number of 11 Black men who were admitted last fall to the Medical University of South Carolina are all doing well academically as the school year ends this spring.

The 11 students, who were among 135 students admitted to MUSC, are believed to be the largest group of Black male, first-year students in a predominantly White medical school in the country, says Dr. Deborah Deas, the college’s associate dean for admission.

In all, this class includes 30 underrepresented minorities, and next year’s class promises to be similarly diverse, Deas says.

When compared with other predominantly White medical colleges, MUSC’s efforts at diversity put the school in a league by itself. The college uses traditional and non-traditional recruitment efforts to identify students and track them through the admissions process.

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, medical schools in the United States — excluding historically Black schools — in 2005 admitted an average of 1.5 Black men to their first-year class.
Dean Jerry Reves began the effort to improve student diversity at the medical school in 2002.

“I would not call this an affirmative action program,” says Reves, who became dean in 2001. “This is a recognition that 30 percent of [South Carolina’s] population is African-American and a recognition that African-Americans represent less than 5 percent of the physicians in this state.

“I view this as an initiative designed to get the number of physicians in our state to look like the population because we don’t have the physicians to relate to the population,” he adds.

Deas, Dr. Thad Bell, an associate dean for diversity at MUSC, and Myra Haney, the medical college’s director of academic and student support, lead a student support program called Mentoring Ensures Medical School Success. It is designed to help Black, Hispanic and American Indian students transition into medical school. Each month, Bell mentors the men and Deas and Haney meet with the women students.

“We look at what causes medical students to drop out and the reasons they have problems,” Bell says. “This is a difficult journey. It requires feedback.”

The college also assigns a student mentor for every admitted student, says Deas. “That has been the drawing card for students to attend, not just under-represented students, but all students,” she says.

MUSC was not the first choice for Michael Smith, who was one of the 11 Black men admitted last fall. After receiving a doctorate in microbiology from Howard University, Smith says he had planned to enter Howard’s medical school. But Dr. John Robinson, his mentor at Howard, “suggested that I step away from my comfort zone. I think it was one of the best decisions I could have made at this point,” Smith says. At MUSC, Smith says he found “the network that I needed. It allows us to come together and feed off each others experiences.”

The mentoring program was not what drew Walhalla, S.C., resident Julie Robinson, one of the first-year Hispanic students, to MUSC. She learned about the program after she arrived. Since then, she says it has been an effective therapeutic session to help her through the tough times of medical school. “It is a chance to talk to other students and realize that you are not the only one going through the stresses of medical school,” she says. “For me, it is stressful because I am a newlywed, and it is stressful to make time for family and friends and to put the priorities in the right order.”

MUSC’s medical college recruits students the old fashion way with an added twist. “We have recruitment trips to the South Carolina colleges and universities as well as the historically Black colleges and universities in the state,” Deas says, adding that they also heavily recruit students who attend an annual symposium in honor of Dr. Ernest Just, a renowned Black marine biologist.

The recruitment process goes beyond the symposium, Deas says, by assigning current medical students as student ambassadors to applicants and students who’ve been accepted to the medical college. “The student ambassadors discuss their experiences at MUSC and the supportive environment in which they learn,” Deas says.

The medical college, one of six colleges that make up the university, has increased its diversity without large amounts of scholarship money, Deas says. “Students who come believe that the college will make every effort to ensure that they get the support they need to graduate. If we are doing this well without scholarship money, imagine what we could do if we had the financial resources to provide lots of scholarships.

“Dr. Reves wants to create an environment in which diversity is welcoming to all, and that in turn will enhance everyone’s education,” she says. “When African-American students see other African-American students, faculty and members of the admissions committee, it creates a welcoming environment.”

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