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Being Mentored Helps Black Medical Students Face Isolation, Racial Microaggressions

Jamel Hill, a fourth year medical student, confronted a stark reality when he went into medical school. But through the racial microaggressions, he also found mentors who guided him through the hardest times. He just matched in a physical medicine and rehabilitation residency at the University of Kentucky. "It's a dream I've had since high school," he says.
Jamel Hill, a fourth year medical student, confronted a stark reality when he went into medical school. But through the racial microaggressions, he also found mentors who guided him through the hardest times. He just matched in a physical medicine and rehabilitation residency at the University of Kentucky. "It's a dream I've had since high school," he says.

Jamel Hill, 30, describes his first few months in medical school in 2016 as a "rude awakening." With few people looking like him in the lecture hall, he felt isolated. But it was some conversations being had in the classroom and the hospital that left him the most uncomfortable.

"I've had patients tell nurses that they don't want Black physicians," Hill says. "You know, we're in the 2020s, and you would think that doesn't happen, but it very much so does."

Like many Black students, even getting into medical school was not easy, especially with few role models around. African Americans make up only 5% of doctors and around 8% of those accepted into medical school last year, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges data.

Systemic barriers and racism do not just affect the economic capital of many African American families but their social capital too. Some young medical students and residents are first generation doctors with no one to turn to for advice. Finding mentors in academia is one way to help them overcome this and increase their odds at success.

After Hill got rejected from Indiana University School of Medicine in 2014, he reached out to employees at the admissions office who guided him and connected him with other Black mentors in medicine.

"I think when you come from a sort of disenfranchised background, it is difficult to build these professional networks," Hill says.

These networks helped Hill navigate some of the intense pressures of medical school, where he was even named among Indiana University's Elite 50—a list recognizing students for their excellence outside the classroom. He will soon start a residency in physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Kentucky.

One of Hill's mentors is Antwione Haywood. They met years earlier when Haywood was a Ph.D. candidate and Hill was enrolled in a pipeline program for underrepresented students preparing them to get into medicine.

"First thing people notice about me is that my name is misspelt, compared to other 'Antoines,' " Haywood says. "That goes back to the fact that I grew up with a mother who was an immigrant and had a sixth grade education. I have six siblings and I lost my father to gun violence."

Haywood is an assistant professor of radiation oncology and an assistant dean of students at Indiana University School of Medicine.

He gets what medical students like Hill go through. He, too, once felt like an outsider. In fact, it wasn't until his mentor asked him—not if—but when he is getting his Ph.D. that he started feeling like he belonged.

"I was like really, why would I get a Ph.D.? It just didn't seem attainable to me or a possibility," Haywood says. "But having someone there to offer guidance and support and reassurance even when things weren't going as expected made all the difference for me."

And so, he makes it a point to pay it forward by mentoring other medical students.

But it is not always easy to do that kind of work. Dr. William McDade, chief diversity and inclusion officer at the Accreditation Council of Graduate Medical Education, says when he started his medical career, he used to work on programs helping Black and brown students.

He recalls colleagues criticizing his efforts on "student-centered work" early on in his career. "You find people saying, you're tanking your academic career by spending too much time doing student oriented stuff," he says.

"That work was not promotable," McDade says.

Not promotable but extremely crucial as many medical students and young doctors like Dr. Brittani James say.

James, 34, a family medicine physician at the University of Illinois, is a first-generation doctor.

She vividly remembers the pictures plastered on the hallway walls when she was a medical student at the University of Michigan.

"It was all white men, white men, then Ben Carson and then white men, white men, white men. So, everyday, you're like, 'I don't belong here,' " James says.

It took a toll on her. She had to leave medical school for a year to seek therapy. During her time off she started surrounding herself with colleagues and mentors who supported her. One thing that really helped was getting involved in community work in underserved Black and brown neighborhoods.

"People who fill me up that said, 'you know, your perspective doesn't match medicine, but that's the exact reason why you need to be here.' People who saw my humanity," James says.

It's that feeling of kinship and believing in the potential of the person that makes mentorship for Black medical students and doctors crucial as they navigate a healthcare system that is not always welcoming.

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