By Katie Nash, UNC Health Foundation
“Healing doesn’t start with your hands in the clinic or your head in the classroom – it starts with your heart in the community.”
Claudis Polk, Director of Scholastic Enrichment and Equity at UNC School of Medicine, has always stressed this message to students. The statement also guides the School’s Office of Inclusive Excellence in its continuous work to build and maintain a diverse and inclusive community among students, faculty and staff.
“We do this by focusing on three priorities: structure, strategy and culture,” said Nate Thomas, PhD, Vice Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. “We are focused on decreasing health disparities and increasing health equity, and that starts with moving forward with a framework for training our students, faculty and staff and infusing social justice into all aspects of the School of Medicine experience.”
Dr. Thomas came to the UNC School of Medicine in March, just as the COVID-19 pandemic began to grip the nation. In his new position, Thomas has developed a formalized mentorship initiative known as the STAHR Program.
STAHR, or Students in Training, Academia, Health and Research is a SOM effort that aims to build community, leadership, academic and professional excellence, and success among underrepresented students and trainees. Based on his Thomas Principles, the program uses a framework of mentorship clusters involving faculty, staff, fellows, residents, post docs, medical students and graduate students.
Polk adds that the focus of this type of development and support extends well beyond academics.
“STAHR focuses on underrepresented medicine students, but also first-generation and rural students,” Polk said. “We want to give them a safe space and home that can nurture their development academically, professionally and personally. The basis of any mentorship program is not just supporting someone as a student – we have to support them as a human being before anything else.”
Thomas and Polk stress the impact of donations to student support and scholarship funds to this focus on human needs, as financial obstacles beyond the cost of education itself can be inhibitive to many students. Funds such as the Larry Keith Loyalty Fund and the MED Program Fund provide support to students for travel and lodging for away rotations and conferences, testing and academic support, and a buffer for emergency costs such as unplanned car repairs.
“Many students have financial struggles at home that affect them here at school, and they may be sending home any extra money they have,” Polk said. “Our funding helps to close this gap and make sure students’ basic needs are met.”
Students such as Kedeja Adams credit their success to this very support. Originally from Charlotte, Adams didn’t see higher education in her future initially.
“I never placed much emphasis on education because my dad had complex medical needs that required me to serve as a caretaker, and that was my priority,” Adams said. “I often worked 40 hours a week throughout high school to take care of him. I ended up graduating with a 1.4 GPA, and I didn’t take the SAT or ACT because I had no intentions of going to a university – no one had ever encouraged me to, and it never really crossed my mind as a possibility.”
But Adams knew she enjoyed taking care of her father. After graduation, she enrolled at Central Piedmont Community College with the hope of becoming a certified nursing assistant.
After being encouraged by a mentor to apply to a four-year college, Adams was accepted into North Carolina A&T State University and excelled academically. She was later accepted to UNC School of Medicine, and in her second year received the J. Stuart Gaul, Jr. ’44 Scholarship, a Loyalty Fund scholarship.
“I attribute my success in medical school to my village at UNC – I really owe it to the Office of Scholastic Enrichment and Equity and the Office of Inclusive Excellence,” Adams said. “Participating in the Medical Education Development program in 2016 prior to coming to school really gave me confidence and mentorship that I lacked.
Now a fourth-year, Adams always tries to make time to mentor other students, saying she wouldn’t be here if others hadn’t put that same time in for her. Knowing firsthand the challenges and barriers to this path that many underrepresented students face, she believes it is the best way to give back.
Adams also said that receiving her scholarship allowed her to focus on important aspects of her education such as leadership and service instead of worrying about the financial strain that can come with studying medicine.
“I was working at a coffee shop from 4:30 to 8 a.m., and then I would rush to class,” Adams said. “There were times I had to send money home to my dad to make sure his basic needs were met while I was in medical school. It takes a lot of time and sacrifice, especially if you have a family that can’t financially support you.”
Adams said that donations to scholarship funds mean much more than a dollar value – they give underrepresented students the opportunity to thrive and succeed.
“To whom much is given, much is required,” Adams said. “Because of my scholarships, because people have donated so generously to my education, it encourages me to go back and do the same whenever I am in their position. I am eternally grateful for the scholarships and the opportunities I have been given.”
Adams is completing her fourth-year rotations and is applying to OB-GYN residencies. She hopes to remain in North Carolina for her career.
“One of the things the School instilled in us from day one is serving the community – and North Carolina is truly home for me. I want to serve my community and address the challenges and barriers for people who I consider my neighbors. This is why I went into medicine – and I have UNC to thank for those values.”
For more information on how to support UNC School of Medicine’s scholarships and initiatives in diversity, equity and inclusion, please contact Jeanine Simmons at email@example.com.
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