Eight graduates from the Carolina MED EXCEL program have officially entered the ranks of UNC School of Medicine’s Class of 2027. Joseph Bell, MD ‘86, was keynote speaker for the event held at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Carolina Club in early May. Bell was also honored with a named scholarship for his groundbreaking career as the state’s first American Indian pediatrician and longtime advocate for American Indian health.
UNC School of Medicine leaders, including executive dean Cristy Page, MD ’02, Georgette Dent, MD and Claudis Polk Jr., MA, director of the Office of Scholastic Enrichment and Equity, celebrated the achievements of the graduating class and welcomed the incoming cohort – the third and largest group of scholars since the program began in 2021.
“To our graduating cohort, I want to say a special congratulations,” Page said. “We are just so excited to have you join our UNC School of Medicine family and so proud of what you already accomplished.”
As the graduating scholars exited the program, a new cohort of ten students received a warm welcome from program leaders and fellow students. Launched in spring of 2021, the MED EXCEL program (Medical Education Development Early eXperience in Clinical Education and Learning) provides an intensive one-year clinical, academic and professional development curriculum with conditional acceptance to the School of Medicine upon successful completion of program milestones.
Vice Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, E. Nate Thomas III, PhD, told the incoming scholars: “We know and understand you have a true passion for becoming physicians who will serve patients across this great state of North Carolina. Your diverse experiences and rich cultural history will enable individuals to connect genuinely to the many things that you will provide to them.”
Claudis Polk Jr introduced keynote speaker Bell, who grew up in Robeson County, resides in Pembroke and is a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. The state’s first American Indian pediatrician, Bell is a founding member of the North Carolina American Indian Health Board, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on Native American Child Health, and a past president of the Association of American Indian Physicians, among his many accolades.
“This man is a walking award,” Polk said, telling students that he hoped Bell’s character and many accomplishments would be a message of inspiration.
Bell shared the story of his visit as a 9-year-old to UNC in the summer of 1968. After touring Carmichael Auditorium – where he happened to see his favorite coach (Dean Smith) and his favorite player (Charlie Scott) – he told his mom that this was where he was going to college.
“This would have been 1968, and there probably would have been no other Native American students on the campus in that day,” Bell said. “I realized, even at a young age, that a lot of my ancestors had worked, sweated, bled and died for me to have the opportunity to set foot on this campus. And I never forgot that or took that for granted. That’s why I always count it as a privilege to give back to students.”
Following his undergraduate education at UNC, Bell earned his MD degree from UNC School of Medicine in 1986. He then spent four years at Oklahoma’s Choctaw Indian Hospital before returning to North Carolina to establish his pediatric practice.
With humor and anecdotes from his UNC years, Bell outlined some ‘do’s’ for the newly minted and soon-to-be medical students in the room, advising them to be hungry, driven, direct and honest – and to lead.
“Yes, we need great doctors, and I’m sure the IQs of the people in this room are off the charts. But as you go through your training, just think about the opportunities you might have with your degree and your experience, to lead.”
Bell emphasized the importance of what physicians can do as leaders to guide people toward a direction and goal. “Dean Smith said, when we think about ourselves as leaders, it’s not about the legacy, it’s about doing what is right, that’s what counts.”
He ended by encouraging his audience to find their passion, as they move through their training and career, and what truly sparks their interest. “You have an opportunity,” Bell said. “You’re smart people. You have all the tools you need to do great things. Just do them.”
The message of opportunity came full circle as the event ended and Bell was recognized – to his surprise – with a newly funded, named scholarship. As members of Bell’s family entered the room and gathered near the table where Bell and his wife Vicky were seated, Polk announced The Dr. Joseph Bell Scholarship Endowment to honor Bell’s groundbreaking career and ongoing commitment to the health of Native children in North Carolina.
Bell’s brothers – Ronny Bell, PhD and the Honorable Greg Bell – established this scholarship that will preference medical students who identify as American Indian and are interested in pediatrics. Their hope is that the scholarship can ease students’ burden of debt and provide recipients the freedom to thrive as students while they discover their passion in medicine.
Speaking to his brother Joseph, Ronny Bell described what led to the creation of the new scholarship endowment. “Your love for UNC, for the School of Medicine, for training the next generation of American Indian students – this is the culmination of that.”
For more information on the Carolina MED EXCEL program or The Dr. Joseph Bell Scholarship Endowment, please contact Claire Veazey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 919.445.6738.