Deeply concerned about the paucity of Black and Aboriginal students in medical and other health-related classes at the University of Toronto, retired administrative co-ordinator, Diana Alli and former associate dean of student affairs and admissions, Dr. Miriam Rossi, acted just over two decades ago.
They did a random survey of universities across the country to see if there was a scarcity of students from these ethnic groups pursuing medicine.
The results were shocking and disheartening.
“There were less than two Black students in each medical class at the U of T and no Aboriginals,” said Alli, who was the university’s senior officer for student services, community partnerships and student life. “It was the same situation on other Canadian campuses.”
The Association for the Advancement of Blacks in Health Sciences emerged, which provided outreach sessions in high schools in the Greater Toronto Area that led to the establishment of a U of T summer mentorship program 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 enrolees also secure a high school co-op credit and the opportunity to reach maximum levels of academic achievement.
In the last 20 years, a total of 730 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.
“This is truly a remarkable outcome and I would suggest that this is probably the most successful program of its kind certainly in Canada and possibly in North America,” said retiring U of T dean of medicine and vice-provost, Dr. Catharine Whiteside, at a celebration last week for this year’s graduates and the program’s milestone achievement. “This is the 20th anniversary of the program and a lot has changed in that time. In 1994, there were no smartphones, Twitter, Instagram and very little Internet. But one thing hasn’t changed and that’s the dedication, enthusiasm and commitment of the young people in this program.”
A record 59 high school students participated in this summer’s one-month mentorship program.
“If the stats hold, we will be seeing 30 of you in health sciences later on,” Whiteside told the graduates. “But no matter which career you choose, each of you will have an opportunity to make the world a richer place. You will change the people you meet and they will change you. Together, those interactions will help change the world. I hope as you move through your careers, you will remember to give back to your communities.”
This year’s graduates included Stephen Lewis Secondary School student Mikul Ralph, Jaerae Dell – who attends Mayfield Secondary School – and Octavia Bullen.
“This was a most invaluable opportunity,” said Ralph, who plans to become a heart surgeon. “I had the chance to job shadow with Dr. Paul Marks, who is an orthopaedic surgeon at Sunnybrook and the time I spent with him seeing how he assessed patients and performed his duties professionally is priceless.”
Dell, 16, was introduced to the program by his mother who is a social worker at L’Amoreaux Collegiate Institute.
“I was exposed to the U of T faculties of social work and kinesiology and my placement was with Dr. Kenneth Montague who is very personable, knowledgeable and intelligent,” said Dell, who is also a lifeguard. “I am so glad my mom told me about this amazing opportunity.”
A U of T graduate and dentist since 1987, Montague – who is also an art collector – co-founded the Coloured Development Fund, which is a scholarship program for young art and design achievers. He is always eager to share his clinical knowledge and skills with young people.
Bullen, who enters Grade 11 next semester, aspires to be a nurse.
“Being given an opportunity to shadow nursing administrators at Mount Sinai Hospital was a stepping stone in helping me learn more about the profession,” said Bullen, who is an ice hockey defender with the Scarborough Sharks. “I was exposed to the IDAT (Instant Data Analysis and Transfer) concept that hospitals use for data circulation and communication and my knowledge of how MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and CT (computerized tomography) scans work have increased because of this program.”
Almost 10 per cent of the graduates have gone on to medical school. They include Dr. Jason Holmes, who is doing his residency at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta and Dr. Jerome Byam, who attended last week’s celebration.
Dr. Byam, who spent three years at Forest Hill Collegiate Institute, graduated from the summer mentorship program in 1995.
“I interviewed Jerome and he was that young and persistent kid that wanted to get into medicine,” said Alli.
Completing his first degree at the University of Pennsylvania, Byam received his medical degree from Meharry Medical College in Nashville and recently finished his residency in general surgery at the University of Louisville.
“I have some down time now and I felt it was important for me to come back to this celebration and let the high school students see what success looks like,” said Byam, who spent his first year of life in Guyana and nine in Trinidad & Tobago before migrating to Canada with his family. “This summer mentorship program introduced me to medicine as a career. The experience of shadowing health care professionals helped solidify the idea that I could become a doctor.”
Byam, who also did some research work at Duke University, is married to Dr. Deidre Hilliard, a physician at Jewish Hospital & St. Mary’s Health Care in Louisville. The couple has an 18-month-old daughter.
He said he and his wife are considering settling in the Greater Toronto Area if they find satisfying jobs.
“I have been away for 15 years and my parents and siblings are still here,” said Byam. “Having travelled and lived in several American cities, I can appreciate Toronto for the fine city that it is to raise a family, among other things.”