U of T initiative offers support and guidance to Black medical candidates
July 14, 2017
While browsing the internet a few months ago, Daniel Davies stumbled upon a University of Toronto-led initiative aimed at providing support, guidance and opportunities to Black students preparing to enter medical school.
The Community of Support (COS) offers opportunities for mentorship, job shadowing, research and personalized guidance on admissions.
Though the Black population in the Greater Toronto Area comprises about 8.5 per cent of the population, it’s a community that’s under-represented in medical school.
Davies, who graduated from McGill University and is enrolled in the U of T medical school, is among 26 Black, Indigenous and economically disadvantaged students who benefitted from the COS and are about to enter medical schools in Canada, the United States and the Caribbean.
“The COS speaks to my African identity in a deep and meaningful way,” he said. “I was brought up in an environment that that puts a high premium on mentorship and working collaboratively. To be in a setting with accomplished physicians that look like me is very inspiring. I learnt so much about Black health inequalities.”
Migrating with his family from Nigeria in 2002, Davies completed high school at John Fraser Secondary and majored in neuroscience at McGill.
Ayan Ali, who is enrolled in Tulane University Medical School, is also grateful for the help she received from mentors, including Dr. Kwame McKenzie who is the Centre for Addiction & Mental Health (CAMH) health equity director.
“They also helped me with the application process and were a great resource tool overall,” she said.
The COS is an offshoot of the U of T 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 23 years, nearly 800 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.
Ali graduated from the SMP in 2011 while in Grade 11 at Langstaff Secondary School in Richmond Hill.
She said that program single-handedly changed her life.
“Seeing people that looked like me holding high positions in the medical field was a real eye-opener,” said Ali. “That program is so invaluable.”
The York University graduate failed to gain admission to a Canadian medical school.
“I did an extra year in university to try to improve my GPA to make myself a better candidate for Canadian schools, but it didn’t work out,” she said.
Tulane, Stony Brook University in New York and St. George’s University in Grenada were the only ones that accepted the Canadian candidate.
“I chose Tulane because they are big on community outreach,” she pointed out. “Though not much of a research intensive school, they have a lot of student-run clinics and they are huge in supporting and ameliorating the social and psychological determinants of health.”
Ali, who was born in Germany, and her Somalian parents arrived in the Greater Toronto Area 23 years ago as refugees.
“We lived in social housing when I was growing up, but through hard work and huge sacrifices, my parents were able to save enough money for us to move out into the suburbs,” she said. “It would have been ideal for me to stay here and go to school because my family and social supports are here.”
Two years ago, Ike Okafor, the senior officer of Service Learning and Diversity Outreach at the Office of Health Professions Students Association (OHPSA) and chair of the Black Canadian Admissions Subcommittee (BCAS), started COS to increase outreach to Black Canadian students and ultimately boost the number of Black medical students at U of T.
“In addition to giving them help with the application process, we want to assist them in getting volunteer research experience, expose them to doctors that look like them and basically guide these young people on the road to medical school or other health sciences,” he said.
Since its launch in March 2015, the COS has opened chapters on most university campuses across the province.