While the program has existed since 2008, Penn this year announced an expanded, formal partnership with five historically Black colleges — Howard, Spelman and Morehouse in Atlanta, Xavier University of Louisiana, and Oakwood in Alabama.
“We are talking about identifying students who show great potential and then we provide further enrichment,” said Horace DeLisser, associate dean for diversity and inclusion and a 1981 Penn medical school graduate and pulmonary medicine specialist who has spent his entire career there.
For years, medical schools have struggled to diversify their pools. In 2020-21, only 8% or 7,710 of medical school students nationally identified as Black, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. About 6.7% were Hispanic. Another 10.3% identified as “multiple race/ethnicity.”
“While we have seen some increases over the years, the numbers in particular when we look at those who identify as Black or African American have been relatively flat,” said Geoffrey H. Young, the association’s senior director for transforming the health-care workforce. “That doesn’t mean that our schools haven’t been working diligently to increase diversity. They have.”
Financial challenges, as well as structural racism, including disparities in K-12 education and access to housing, are among barriers, he said. Also complicating efforts to diversify student bodies is the high demand for students of color, said Annette C. Reboli, dean of Cooper Medical School of Rowan University. Smaller schools can lose admitted students to larger medical schools able to offer more generous scholarships.
“That’s been a challenge that we’ve faced, that we’re also trying to raise money for scholarships so we’re not disadvantaged,” said Reboli.
Nearly all medical schools that responded to a 2021 survey have “pathway” programs to attract more students of color, though they vary widely in structure and capacity, Young said. Locally, Cooper Medical School, Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at Rutgers, and Rutgers New Jersey Medical School all offer some form of preparatory programs or pipelines for college students from underrepresented or disadvantaged backgrounds to aid acceptance to medical school. Some of the programs require a student to have already taken the MCATs.
PCOM and Cooper also conduct outreach to students as young as elementary school age to encourage them to see a viable future in a medical profession.
“It’s not unusual for underrepresented students to not aspire to becoming a physician,” said Reboli. “They don’t see many physicians who look like them.”
Guaranteeing admission if students meet certain requirements and waiving the MCAT, as Penn does, is more rare, Young said.
Admitted students to Penn typically score in the top 1% on MCATs, DeLisser said.
“If we had that as a filter, we would potentially lose the opportunity to really go after some talented diverse students,” he said.
The program, he said, allows Penn to assess the students’ potential without MCATs “in a way that is rigorous.”
Jonathan Gaither, 20, who proudly wore a sweatshirt from Howard where he is a rising senior, wants to become a physician scientist and get both a doctorate and medical degree. The Colorado Springs resident said he views the Penn opportunity as a mandate to work doubly hard, “not just for myself but for my peers.
“I won’t just be with [Penn Access Summer Scholars] students in medical school,” said Gaither, the first in his family to pursue medicine. “So I can’t see myself as other.”
Bryson Houston, 22, a 2021 graduate of Morehouse who completed Penn’s summer program, started medical school at Perelman last fall. His experience there helped him tremendously, he said.
“I began to be more comfortable around these high-name professors and doctors and researchers and started to see myself in these spaces,” he said.
Still, the strong support he got once in medical school made the difference.
“It was insane to feel the love of the professors and my advisers, when I was going through tough times in the classroom,” he said.
A native of the Dallas area and the son of a high school principal and X-ray technician, Houston hadn’t considered Penn until his adviser called him one day when he was a sophomore.
“He said, ‘Hey can you put on a suit and meet me in my office in 15 minutes?’” Houston recalled.
That’s when he met DeLisser, who told him about the research opportunity and MCAT waiver. Though he thought it was “pretty cool,” he didn’t apply immediately. Two weeks before the deadline, DeLisser reached out again, and Houston applied.
Penn’s medical school receives more than 7,000 applications annually, accepting about 250 or 3%-4%.
Thirty-nine of 150 students in the 2021 medical class at Penn — 26% — come from underrepresented groups. Penn ranks 28th in the country in medical school student diversity, according to U.S. News and World Report. Temple by comparison is sixth, while Drexel ranks 81st.
The summer scholars program started with promising undergraduates from Penn, Princeton and Haverford and eventually Bryn Mawr. Eighty-six students have participated since its inception, including 21 who are currently enrolled. Nearly all have gone on to medical school, and of those who went to Penn, all either graduated or are still enrolled.
The expansion to historically Black colleges began informally several years ago with DeLisser visiting and meeting with promising students. He coached them on medical school applications and offered advice.
“Now we are getting students from Xavier who grew up in Arkansas,” he said.
Much of the students’ summer research focuses on medical issues facing people of color, which appealed to Gabrielle Scales, 21, a rising senior at Spelman. Her research involves breast density of Black women as it relates to cancer.
She looks forward to advocating for patients from underrepresented groups.
“There are not a lot of doctors who look like me and there could be a lot more,” she said.
DeLisser eventually hopes to add Hispanic-serving colleges, once he can find donor support for tuition.
Growing the effort is important, especially considering that those from underrepresented backgrounds are more likely to serve those communities, the AAMC’s Young said.
That’s what Johnson plans to do.
“A lot of people from underrepresented communities, they benefit more from having physicians who look like them,” she said, “and understand the things they are going through.”
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