Rutgers Program Encourages Minority Undergrads in Quest to Become Doctors

Rutgers Program Encourages Minority Undergrads in Quest to Become Doctors

Access Med sends 52 students this year to continue education in medical and allied health fields

Access Med has helped hundreds of Rutgers students succeed in the life sciences, including Tochi Nworu, from left, Gabriela Magdaleno and Elorm Avakame.
Credit: Nick Romanenko

“As much as my family supported me through my education, they didn’t know how to get me to medical school. It’s a mentally demanding process. Sometimes you need someone else to tell you they believe in you. And that was ODASIS.”
2013 Access Med graduate Gabriela Magdaleno.

Going premed is a lofty goal for any undergraduate.

But blazing a path to medical school without role models or a road map can leave many underrepresented students feeling overwhelmed and unsure whether their final destination is even attainable.

This year, a Rutgers program dedicated to leveling the playing field for those students is sending off 52 seniors and alumni to continue their education in the medical and allied health fields.

“I like to say Access Med is a diversity pipeline without any leaks,” said Kamal Khan, who has worked in the Office for Diversity and Success in the Sciences, or ODASIS, since its inception in 1986, becoming the associate director in 2004 and director in 2011. Access Med is the core undergraduate program of ODASIS, an academic support unit in the School of Arts and Sciences’ Division of Life Sciences.

Through Access Med’s academic enrichment, advising, career counseling and MCAT preparation, Rutgers has gone from graduating one African-American premed student in 1987 to readying 1,034 minority and economically disadvantaged students for careers in health and medicine between 1990 and 2013.

African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans represent about 26 percent of the U.S. population but comprise less than 8.56 percent of the country's physicians.

Hardly a handout, Access Med’s practice-makes-perfect approach actually piles more work on the plates of its students. Those intense first-year requirements – an additional two hours of mandatory academic support and assignments per week per STEM course and six hours of mandatory study hall per week – do scare some students away, Khan said. But the ones who stick with it are stronger students for it.

“I preach tough love,” said Khan. “If they walk in late to a study session, they get a red flag. If they leave early, they get a red flag. If they miss a class, they get a red flag. Three red flags and they are out of the program.”

That formula has helped hundreds succeed in the life sciences, including Gabriela Magdaleno, Tochi Nworu and Elorm Avakame, three first-generation Americans whose paths to medical school vary as much as their personal narratives. But the trio shares one common denominator: Their odysseys would likely have ended early without Access Med.

“As much as my family supported me through my education, they didn’t know how to get me to medical school,” said Magdaleno, 22, of Hackettstown, who majored at Rutgers in biological sciences with a minor in criminology. “It’s a mentally demanding process. There are moments you doubt yourself and question if you’ve chosen the right path. Even if you don’t believe in yourself sometimes, you need someone else to tell you they believe in you. And that was ODASIS.”

African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans represent about 26 percent of the U.S. population but comprise less than 8.56 percent of the country's physicians, according to the 2010 U.S. Census and Association of American Medical Colleges.   

Access Med Ceremony
Access Med graduates, Tito Mantilla, from left, Vanessa Arientyl, Anthony Brown, Alexis Mbakwe, Tiwalade Adediji, Aileen Baffo and Tesia McKenzie celebrate at the 2013 ceremony. 

Courtesy of ODASIS
Those percentages didn’t deter Magdaleno from pursuing her goal. One of nine students this year to complete both of Access Med’s phases, Magdaleno gained early acceptance into Robert Wood Johnson Medical School before earning her college degree.

Magdaleno, whose mother was born in Colombia and father is Mexican and Puerto Rican, recalls tagging along with her mother to doctor visits as a child. Her desire to become a physician stems from watching her mother struggle to translate complex medical terms from English to Spanish for her aging maternal grandparents.

She hopes to fill a need in the community for culturally sensitive physicians so she can help people like her grandparents feel at ease in a doctor’s office and ensure they receive the best health care possible. “Although both my maternal grandparents have passed away, I know that when I put on the white coat for the first time this summer they will both be looking down on me knowing that their American dream is finally coming true,” Magdaleno said.

Following Access Med through Phase II, as Magdaleno did, puts students on the program’s fast track to medical school. If accepted into Phase II, students enter a binding agreement to attend Robert Wood Johnson Medical School upon graduation and begin taking medical courses during their senior year at Rutgers.

In addition to early acceptance, the perks of the rigorous program include sidestepping the costly and often stressful medical school application process, which, with fees and travel expenses, can cost upward of $5,000. 

Being required to take medical courses while finishing her undergraduate studies gave Magdaleno an early taste of medical school, which she said should ease her transition this fall and keep her one step ahead at medical school.

Nworu's and Avakame’s Access Med journeys both culminated with Phase I, which includes workshops and seminars at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and New Jersey Medical School, as well as out-of-state medical schools. But the two are heading in different directions this fall.

Nworu, who graduates with a visual arts major and minor in biology, was accepted through early decision at New Jersey Medical School. Avakame, a 2012 Rutgers graduate who majored in public health through the School of Arts and Sciences and the Bloustein School, worked as an ODASIS adviser this year as he applied to medical schools.

Among the 13 Access Med students accepted at New Jersey Medical School this year, Nworu said she chose to continue her medical studies in Newark because of the “family-like atmosphere“ she felt there during tours and seminars.

“You go for a big institution and you’re kind of looked at like an number,” said Nworu, 22, of Piscataway. “The fact they are able to give that individual attention to someone even before you’ve enrolled (means) they actually place some value on you as a person.”

Her parents, born in Nigeria, instilled in her early on that “education is the key to success.” And they led by example: her father, a retired Newark teacher, completed his doctorate last year at age 62; her mother, a school nurse in East Orange, earned her master’s in nursing at Jersey City University.

So after graduating from Piscataway High School with a 3.8 grade average, Nworu was unnerved to receive a 2.9 at the end of her first semester at Rutgers. “The fact that I had below a 3 was crazy to me,” she said.

That’s when she decided to dig deeper and take full advantage of all the assistance Access Med offered.

“I was trying to get the homework done just to get it done. I didn’t go in for the additional. I figured I can do this. I’ll just study in my dorm,” said Nworu, who is graduating with a 3.6 average. “After that, I was in the office all the time asking for additional help and additional practice questions on top of what I had to do as a ODASIS student.”

Avakame, 22, an academic standout at his high school in Bensalem, Pa., said he was “shell shocked” when he started college. “There was too much freedom,” he said.

But Access Med’s structure provided the discipline he needed to better his study and time management skills; his GPA went from a 2.3 to a 3.7. Within four years, Avakame went from floundering as a freshman to being invited to attend Harvard Medical School.

Inspired by his parents’ decision to leave their native Ghana for Canada and later the United States to further their education, Avakame decided to leave his comfort zone in Philadelphia to attend Harvard.

“Both my parents were born in poverty in Ghanaian villages,” Avakame said. His father, Edem, earned his doctorate in sociology and is now a tenured professor at Rutgers’ School of Criminal Justice. His mother earned her CPA and works today as an analyst at Lockheed Martin. “They saw an opportunity to secure a better life for themselves and for their future children, and they seized that opportunity,” Avakame said.

With the addition of New Jersey Medical School and Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, which already partners with Access Med, into Rutgers July 1, ODASIS’ “diversity pipeline” will be an internal one.

Post integration, Rutgers can claim that more than 20 students from underrepresented groups will be accepted annually into its own medical schools. “These accomplishments easily make Rutgers University a national leader in diversity in medicine,” Khan said.