Mentorship program, family support credited for success
Struggling in high school and failing some courses, Joseph Acquaye approached a guidance counsellor in Grade 11 seeking advice about university options and admission processes.
The response wasn’t what he expected.
At the time, Acquaye was considering pharmacy as a career option.
“She told me my grades weren’t strong enough and suggested I take non-academic courses,” recalled the medical student who graduates in May with top honours from Meharry Medical College (MMC) which is one of America’s oldest and largest historically Black academic health science centres dedicated to educating physicians, dentists, researchers and health policy experts.
“Her feeling was that a co-op track would give me a better opportunity to pursue a trade. I wasn’t interested in going that route, but she just didn’t seem to get it. Guidance counsellors should try to encourage students to achieve their maximum potential instead of attempting to stuff them in a box.”
Each year, the University of Toronto (U of T) Black Students Association hosts a high school conference to encourage and promote education access to groups that are historically under-represented in post-secondary institutions.
“I stumbled upon a flyer for the conference and saw it as a good opportunity to be away from school for a day,” said Acquaye. “Looking back, I am so happy I went because that event set my career in motion.”
He was introduced to the U of T’s Faculty of Medicine Summer Mentorship Program (SMP) designed to offer a focus for students with both an interest and aptitude for the sciences, particularly for those who otherwise would not have available mentorship opportunities.
Grade 10 and 11 students in the Greater Toronto Area are assigned to hospitals and other health care sectors and provided with opportunities to interact with graduates and students in health care programs. The enrollees also secure a high school co-op credit and the opportunity to reach maximum levels of academic achievement.
In the last 21 years, a total of 791 students have graduated from the program. Almost all have attained post-secondary degrees and nearly half have completed a medical degree or professional program in health sciences.
“We are proud of Joseph and the rest of the alumni of this program that continues to grow in new and exciting ways as we continue to enhance the summer experience and establish new opportunities for students completing the program,” said Ike Okafor, the U of T’s Faculty of Medicine service learning & diversity outreach senior officer.
Acquaye successfully completed the 2005 SMP.
“That was an eye-opener for me because I learned that I could be anything I wanted to be,” he said. “It was so inspiring to be around students looking like me who had extremely high expectations.”
Graduating from St. Basil-the-Great College School as the valedictorian, high school athlete of the year and top all-round male student and the U of T with honours in physical education and health, Acquaye – the SMP co-ordinator for several years who oversaw an intensive one-month program for 50 new students – is winding down his studies at MMC in Nashville.
He made it through medical school only after an uncle used his home as collateral.
“My parents didn’t have the funds,” said Toronto-born Acquaye who spent his first 17 years in Rexdale with his parents who migrated from Ghana.
He will enter the University of Minnesota in June to do a five-year residency in urology.
“I have had an uncle who had prostate cancer which is a disease that disproportionately affects men of colour,” said Acquaye. “I wanted to do the surgical aspect of urology like removing kidneys and bladders and also work at the policy level in terms of helping address the disparity.”
Just three resident positions are offered annually at the university.
“In the United States, there are about 230 positions available each year to almost 2,000 applicants,” he said. “It’s a very competitive process and being a Canadian added another layer I had to get through.”
In addition to family members, Acquaye is grateful for the support he received from individuals that have allowed him to pursue excellence.
They include Dr. Joel Kerr, who he met 11 years ago and is a mentor and Diana Alli, a retired senior officer in the U of T Faculty of Medicine.
“The SMP is a constant reminder for students to reach their highest potential,” said Alli, the president of the Access Empowerment Council which inspires disengaged, marginalized and underrepresented youth and engages isolated elderly globally. “Remarkable in every sense of the word, Joseph has made it to the next milestone, entering residency in urology which is a highly competitive surgical specialty. His outstanding record of accomplishment has culminated in this exemplary distinction.”
The coming month of June is significant for Acquaye who was the recipient of a 2013 Investing in the Future student research fellowship award and the committee chair of MMC’s Cadaver Ball that celebrates the university’s first-year students.
Four days before he starts his residency, he will be in the Greater Toronto Area tying the nuptial knot with childhood sweetheart, Precious Opoku, who is a charge nurse at a long-term care facility. They were born the same day and month a year apart.
“I met her in Grade Nine and we started dating in Grade 12,” said Acquaye. “When she was trying to get into nursing school, I was her tutor and that brought us even closer together. She has been there for me every step of this journey and I am so much looking forward to our wedding day and to being always together.”
Opoku is studying for the United States nursing licensure exam that will allow her to practice south of the border when she joins her partner in Minnesota.
After completing his residency in 2021, Acquaye plans to start a private practice or pursue a fellowship in urologic oncology.