Trevor entered my 11th grade Baltimore biology class without a strong science background. He didn't know what the heart did, what cells were or why DNA was important. Yet two months later, he wrote one of the best essays in the class comparing mitochondria and chloroplasts. After Trevor scored a 95 percent on our Body Systems Unit exam, he told me "I want to be a doctor." While I was ecstatic about his new passion, I knew his English and math skills were around seventh grade level. My heart began to sink into my stomach as I realized all of the extra effort Trevor would need to put in to reach his goal — but it just as quickly lifted as I realized that with the proper supports, this was more than possible.
Baltimore is known for its world-class hospitals, medical schools and research laboratories. What if, I thought to myself, we could capitalize on the city's existing resources and create partnerships to support students like Trevor on the path to graduate school and to pursue careers in health care? We could change their academic trajectories. In turn, they could come back to their communities and ensure that everyone has access to health care. We could transform Baltimore's high school students into health care leaders.
Many programs promote STEM education and aim to increase diversity in the health sciences. They provide meaningful experiences such as summer internships and speaker series designed to expose students to careers in health. This is a good start, but to put students on the path to careers in health care, they need more. Students deserve inspirational experiences working in hospitals alongside health care professionals, and many might require academic remediation, college and career counseling, and a community of peers and mentors to provide longitudinal support for several years.
With this understanding, I developed the framework for the Medical Education Resources Initiative for Teens (MERIT; meritbaltimore.org).
Since its inception in 2011, MERIT has served more than 30 Baltimore City public school students and involved more than 200 volunteers. I spent my days teaching as a Teach for America Baltimore Corps member, alongside MERIT co-founders Mark Wilcox and Shyam Gadwal. We spent our nights and weekends working with dedicated volunteers to build MERIT's curriculum. By fostering relationships with academic hospitals, local universities and the city school district, we were able to string together resources for our scholars.
Last year, our juniors increased their SAT scores, on average, by 336 points (the national average increase is 57 points). All of our seniors matriculated into four-year universities, and one-third received full-ride scholarships. Our oldest alum, Jasmine, is a junior at McDaniel College. She has a 3.6 GPA, a full-ride scholarship and is currently interning at the Kennedy Krieger Institute. She plans to apply to PhD programs in clinical psychology next year.
Our scholars and alumni amaze me daily — their passion and unleashed potential will have a tremendous impact on our community. According to national patient care data, if just one of our alumni makes it through medical school (and if you met our scholars, you would know many more are going to achieve this goal), he or she would care for more than 10,000 patients as a primary care provider. Additionally, our alumni will be able to add a fresh perspective to the health care debates. Their voices are not represented now, but one day, they will be poised to influence critical decisions. These inspiring possibilities led me to take a year away from medical school to build MERIT's capacity and increase the number of scholars we support from 10 per cohort to 40. Our growth relies on generous support from Baltimoreans, both financial and through in-kind services such as physicians who serve as summer preceptors.
Our nation needs our scholars to become health care providers. According to the American Association of Medical Colleges, we are already facing a physician shortage, and this problem will only worsen in the coming decade. The paucity of diversity in the physician workforce is similarly troubling. While over 31 percent of the American population identifies as African-American, Hispanic or Native American, only 12 percent of physicians do so. Similarly, less than 10 percent of medical students are from low-income families. Health care disparities will only be eliminated if the health care workforce mirrors the communities we serve, as physicians from under-represented backgrounds are more likely to practice in under-served settings.
Our scholars are not our doctors today, but they will need to be tomorrow.