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UAMS summer programs build Arkansas’ diverse health care workforce

At UAMS, summer enrichment programs for minority and disadvantaged youth – from kindergarten to college – are helping build Arkansas’ future generation of health care professionals and biomedical research scientists. This past summer, more than 500 students from Little Rock and surrounding areas took part in programs lasting six to eight weeks. Elementary and middle school students were immersed in activities to whet their curiosity about the sciences and foster dreams of becoming a doctor. High school and college students had opportunities to hone science and math skills, prepare for entrance exams, and pursue research interests.

With Arkansas’ increasingly diverse population, improving health care educational opportunities for qualified applicants from diverse backgrounds is becoming more critical as a strategy for addressing two public health challenges confronting the state – shortages of primary care providers in rural areas and the disparities in access and quality of care that minorities sometimes receive.

Research has shown that trust and understanding come more easily when patient and provider are of the same race or ethnicity, and that translates to better health outcomes. And, minority health care professionals are more likely to practice in under-served areas.

First-year medical student Randall Walker, who comes from the small town of Lake Village, in the far southeast corner of the state, wants to make a difference in health care in rural Arkansas. After earning a degree in biology from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff in May 2010, he entered the UAMS master’s of public health degree program that August, with the goal of also going to medical school. He credits the Undergraduate Student Summer Enrichment Program (USSEP) for helping him achieve the first step towards that dream.

“The USSEP summer program provided me that extra boost of confidence that I needed to be a competitive applicant,” Randall said. “My experience with USSEP was phenomenal! The CDA staff was very supportive and always provided encouragement. The counselors [who are now second-year medical students] were very essential in not only my success, but of other students as well. They provided various workshops that explained step by step the application process, provided advice and critique on our personal statements, as well as mock interviews. This, coupled with the Kaplan course being taught by Kaplan teachers, allowed me to feel confident in my application and taking the MCAT.”

Randall’s interest in medicine started with his mother’s employment at the hospital in his hometown and experiences of family members with the health care system.

“During my teenage years my grandmother was diagnosed with cervical cancer,” Randall related. “After seeing her battle cancer and struggle sometimes to access adequate healthcare I was compelled to pursue a career that would help to decrease the many problems she faced. Then over the next couple of years, I lost other family members to cancer as well.”

During a summer break from his undergraduate studies, Randall completed an internship at Howard College of Medicine in Washington, D.C. That experience solidified his career goals.

“It was here through many hours of shadowing physicians and interacting with medical students that I knew medicine was where I could make the greatest difference,” Randall said.  “I want to do research – something with the MPH that deals with health disparities that minority populations face. I want to be in an environment that uses both – the MD and MPH.”

Research has also shown that higher education, and in health care in particular, benefits from diversity. Students and faculty from varied backgrounds bring a mix of perspectives and life experiences to the classroom that enrich students professionally and personally. White students graduating from medical schools whose student bodies are more racially and ethnically diverse are more likely to rate themselves as prepared to treat minority patients, according to a 2008 study by Somnath Saha et al.

Although there is variability in minority enrollment across colleges, UAMS like many other institutions continues to struggle with maintaining a minority student enrollment that is at or above the national average.  All the colleges are making efforts to increase diversity among students and faculty and have developed five-year strategic plans to reach recruitment and retention goals.

University leaders anticipate that those efforts, coupled with UAMS summer enrichment programs, will increase the pool of qualified minority applicants, such as Randall Walker.

“Randall is an exceptional student and typical of the students that participate in many of our summer enrichment programs,” Dr. Billy Thomas, UAMS vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion, said. “Although we would like take some undue credit for all of his successes, it is primarily through his hard work, perseverance and dedication that he has progressed academically. We try to provide an inviting, nurturing environment in addition to a structured curriculum along with the social and moral support that is necessary in helping students be successful.”

Randall is grateful for the welcoming atmosphere at UAMS he has experienced as a minority student.

“Given that I am a MD/MPH student I have the opportunity to get to know many students, staff members, and teachers across the campus,” Randall said. “The atmosphere here at UAMS is like a family. There is always someone right around the corner that is willing to help and offer assistance if it is needed. The upperclassmen are very supportive and always checking in on me to make sure that everything is going well.”