Lifting as We Climb: The Importance of Mentorship for Minority Students
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell states the following: "Success is not a random act. It arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities." This statement applies directly to my life. If you asked me thirteen years ago where I would like to be in my early 20s, I would have said “I want to be in medical school.” But, if you had asked me how I planned to get there, I would have given you a blank stare. My family and I had just migrated to Minnesota from Ethiopia, and though the small seed of interest in medicine was growing in me, I had two clearer, short-term goals in my life: I needed to learn how to speak English and I needed to learn how to eat American school lunch.
As I fumbled my way through both American culture and middle school, my family’s love and support helped me continue. However, by the time I reached high school it was obvious that I would need more help in both my academic and personal life. As the first person in my family to go to college in the United States, my family and I were essentially tasked with learning the American education system from zero. Around this time, I stumbled across Upward Bound (UB), a preparatory program geared towards preparing low income and minority students for college. In UB, I met college students, incredible mentors, and friends. I can honestly say that without UB, I absolutely would not have gotten into Johns Hopkins University or had the skills to succeed once at Hopkins.
My story follows a similar path in college where, each step of the way, premedical advisors, students at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and personal mentors helped me navigate college courses, the medical school application process, and perhaps most importantly, guided my personal journey to understanding myself and solidifying my passion for medicine. Whenever I felt like giving up—while studying for the MCAT, when receiving rejection letters from medical schools, and managing personal crises—my mentors helped me persevere. To think that I, a black girl from Ethiopia who barely spoke English, could make it to medical school truly makes me believe that other minority students can, too. Gladwell’s book has another line which reads "The values of the world we inhabit and the people we surround ourselves with have a profound effect on who we are." The biggest lesson in my life has been to reach out and ask for help. It’s been the realization that without the people in my life, I am nothing.
As I think about my long path of training in medicine, as well as my current role as a first-year student, I also think of the fact that I still need the aid of others. From figuring out what the wards will be like, to study tips for board exams, to deciding on a specialty, I will continue to need mentors. However, I also strongly believe that I can serve as a mentor for those who may walk the same road as me, even if they don’t take the same exact steps. Booker T. Washington’s phrase “lifting as we climb” comes to my mind—the idea that as we continue to work on our personal success, we must also lend a hand to those striving to do similarly. This, I think, is especially true in the medical field where only 5% of the physician workforce in the United States is black and less black men are enrolled in medical school in 2014, as compared to 1978. Research has also shown that doctors of underrepresented racial groups are more likely to work with patients from underrepresented backgrounds and may be part of a potential solution to the health disparities among different races that we see in the United States.
For me, tutoring and mentoring has been my way of attempting to leave a mark in this world and give back some of what’s been given to me. While in college, this translated to spending my time as a language tutor for adopted Ethiopian students, as well as working as a high school teaching assistant in the Remington area of Baltimore. Now, as a medical student, I participate in HPREP, a program geared towards mentoring minority high school students who are interested in health professions. I am also part of the Pipeline Program as a member of the Harvard Medical School chapter of the Student National Medical Association (SNMA), an organization that focuses on providing chapter mentorship to younger premedical students that are part of the undergrad version of the program, Minority Association for Pre-health Education (MAPS). This is especially important to me, given that I was part of MAPS during undergrad and benefited immensely from the networking, service, and mentoring opportunities provided by the SNMA chapter of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
More specifically, the importance of mentoring should not be underestimated for students who come from underrepresented backgrounds, as well as those who are the first in their families to make the long and grueling journey to medical school and beyond. We often talk about the importance of work force diversity, or rather the lack of diversity in medicine and I sincerely believe that mentoring is part of the solution. As I continue in my career, I want to make it a point to support and encourage those who are taking the same journey as I did. Medicine is often described as a never-ending career of learning and teaching, and I look forward to a lifetime of engaging in both of these pursuits.