Shelty L. Jackson’s lifelong love of science led her to pursue medicine. However, the biology student said she saw a lack of diversity within the field in her first year of study.
“Whenever I was doing things like shading or volunteering, there were no people I could relate to,” Jackson said.
African and Hispanic students make up less than 20% of the Texasdale University Medical School student body, according to 2021 Texas Board of Higher Education data. In an effort to better support underrepresented student groups and promote equality in the medical field, Jackson and 14 other students visited Black and Latino pre-health students at the University of Texas Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta as part of the Health Equality Exposure Trial from April 27 to May 1.
“A lot of us are first generation[college students]so our parents don’t really have those connections,” Jackson said. “It’s a really useful journey to let us go out and show what we can do and connect ourselves.”
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“The value lies in their lived experiences”
The program was a partnership with Dell Medical School’s Health Professions Track Program and was funded and organized mostly by UT’s Department of Diversity and Community Engagement, according to Dr. Octavio Martinez, co-chair of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Dell Medical School.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle B. Walinsky, in a video for students in the program: “This program … is exactly the kind of innovation needed in the field of public health.” “We are grateful that you are a part of it, and carry the torch for health justice.”
At the CDC, students engaged with health professionals, sharing their own experiences, and their passion for health equity and anti-medical racism solutions.
“The value lies in their lived experiences,” said Ryan Sutton, associate dean for diversity, equality, and inclusion at Dell Medical School. “We’re seeing the underrepresentation of historically marginalized groups within these spaces, so the fact that we can walk into these spaces (as) black and brown individuals, adds a level of insight that[medical professionals]can get.”
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At Georgia Tech, students also toured sports medicine facilities and participated in a question-and-answer session with members of sports medicine staff. The students asked committee members about physical and mental health in sports medicine, the various disparities within the profession and how to succeed in the field.
Throughout the trip, students were joined by prominent medical professionals from the CDC, Morehouse College of Medicine and others to provide networking and mentorship opportunities. In addition, students and faculty have visited the National Center for Civil and Human Rights as well as Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park.
Exploring health equity
While the trip focused primarily on students’ experiences and current inequalities, historical health disparities and a history of mistrust between communities of color and the health care field were not left out of the conversation.
During the CDC visit, students toured the museum on campus, and the evidence emphasized centuries-old health justice and medical racism. During the tour, they specifically discussed the 1932 Tuskegee Experiment in which hundreds of black men inadvertently infected with syphilis were studied on the false pretense that they received free medical care and were never offered any treatment.
“Being a black woman in the United States, I myself have seen and heard stories of mistreatment of black women as well as other minorities and how uncomfortable it can be to go to the doctor or go to the dentist (or) I want to,” said Pesona Yangni, a novice in health and society. To do what I can to help relieve this pressure on people.”
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Today, disparities persist as black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women, according to the American Medical Association.
Black and Hispanic physicians made up nearly 11% of active physicians in the United States in 2018, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. Blacks and Hispanics make up roughly 32% of the US population, according to the latest Census data.
“When you witness the disparities within your community, you really see how not perfect the system is,” said Jenata Lopez, a health and society novice. “When I explored health equity and the political and social determinants of health care, it made me want to reform it and advocate for people.”
“Does this world allow me to become a doctor?”
Faith Floronso, a second-year public health student, said she is excited about her future in healthcare and making a difference in the industry. However, she said, at times, she’s weary of how realistic the future of health is for her as a black woman, especially in UT, where she is surrounded by her white colleagues.
“I used to dream this big, but there is always a fear of my color not allowing me to achieve my dreams, based on how I see the world treating minorities,” said Floronso. “I want to become a doctor, but will this world allow me to become a doctor?”
According to Texas Board of Higher Education data for 2021, the student population of Dell Medical College is approximately 60% white. By comparison, nearly 47% of all medical school students nationwide in 2021-22 are white, according to data compiled by the Association of American Medical Colleges.
Sutton and Steve Smith, associate dean of student affairs, speaking for Dell Medical School, said the problems within the school causing these race disparities are a result of systemic barriers, and officials are trying to start a conversation about working to improve this.
Dell Medical School also supports programs such as the one in which ethnic minority students are placed in counseling groups with local physicians from a variety of programs, and has several student organizations that aim to support and create a safe community for underrepresented minorities. Sutton said this initiative serves as a temporary solution to a much larger issue and a temporary start to further efforts to prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion.
“We have work to do,” Sutton said. “There is a diverse, talented and talented pool of future health professionals seeking admission to medical schools across this country. As we continue our quest to improve diversity in representation, we must continue to examine our procedures, policies, and practices to ensure that they are fair and inclusive.”
Many students said this trip reignited their passion for medicine, public health policy, and advocating for health equity. Throughout the trip, many professionals referred to the students as “the future of medicine.”
“You’re going to make an impact on those professionals who are already established in the field and give them a sense of your experience (and) what you feel the healthcare industry needs,” said junior neuroscientist Diobinhi Castellanos. “It’s really touching because I never thought in high school that I would ever get such an opportunity.”
This story was originally published by The Daily Texan, the independent newspaper produced by University of Texas students.