Supporting Diversity Through Community
With the help of the Faculty of Medicine’s Community of Support (CoS), 26 students from underrepresented groups will begin medical school in the fall — including five at U of T.
CoS is a multi-faceted program that works to increase the number of Indigenous, Black or economically disadvantaged students at medical school at the University of Toronto and beyond.
“It’s important that we reflect our city, our province and our country,” says Dr. Patricia Houston, Vice Dean, MD Program. “Diversity is one of our major priorities.”
In 2015, CoS helped about 200 students through mentorship opportunities, enrichment courses and its Student Application Support Initiative (SASI).
A year later, CoS grew to help over 700 pre-med students at various points of study and a new MCAT Student Support Initiative (MSPP) was launched. It offers low-income students a free course to help them prepare for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT).
A level playing field boosts students’ chance of success says Ike Okafor, senior officer of service learning and diversity outreach at the Office of Health Professions Student Affairs (OHPSA). “Of the 69 students who applied to medical school through CoS last year, 26 of them were admitted to medical schools in Canada, the United States and the Caribbean, which speaks to the importance of linking students with the right supports, whether that is through application support, exposure to physicians, volunteer or research opportunities (two CoS students were recently published in JAMA). The support from our MD students in making this possible has been incredible.”
CoS incorporates mentors at various stages in their training and careers, including medical students, residents and practicing physicians. Chief Diversity Officer Lisa Robinson says much of the mentorship has been possible with the support of the Black Physicians Association of Ontario and the Black Medical Students Association (BMSA). She hopes to see the pool of mentors grow in the future.
“There’s evidence that that Black students are more likely to be streamed into non-academic programs or suspended, which conveys to these young people that university and medicine aren’t for them,” says Robinson, a professor in the Department of Paediatrics. “Without role models to tell them differently, they’re less likely to follow an academic path. We’re trying to make the role models visible and connect these kids with people who are like them but a little older.”
Rahel Zewude is one of more than 100 medical student mentors. She’s the co-president of the BMSA, which is helping connect prospective students with a professional network they might not otherwise have had access to.
“It’s a privilege to have family members, friends and colleagues who can review your essays and give you advice, and not everyone has that,” says Zewude. “That’s one of the ways we’re trying to bridge the gap.”
Zewude also says mentorship is a continuing cycle. She mentored a student who was accepted to multiple medical schools and will be attending U of T in the fall.
Daniel Davies will begin medical school at U of T this fall. He discovered the CoS on the Faculty of Medicine’s website a few months before he began the application process. Through CoS, Davies accessed several opportunities that encouraged him before and during the stressful application process.
"The proverb 'it takes a village to raise a child' illustrates how much emphasis black communities place on mentorship and community,” says Davies, who completed his undergraduate degree in Neuroscience at McGill University in Montreal. “My experience with CoS was transformative because these cultural values are central to their approach to supporting students and they’re the same values highlighted in my upbringing."
Davies plans to pay it forward and will continue to advocate for equity in his community. Through his church, he is informally mentoring a group of black pre-med students. He also remains part of the CoS community.
According to Okafor, CoS is the largest university-led medical school preparation program in North America. The program also includes more than a dozen student-led chapters at universities across Ontario, with more planned at Universities across Canada. A province-wide high school outreach component is also in the works.