While many of their classmates were pondering summer vacation plans, Jyla Hicks and Karol Serafin-Molina were visualizing themselves as Boston University students, studying hard to pick up a few extra academic credits.
The two sophomore eagles had interviewed in January 2015 for a spot in Boston University Medical School’s Early Medical School Selection Program, which rewards talented, hard-working pre-med students with a clear pathway to becoming a physician.
The news finally came in mid-April: both women had been accepted. They began packing their bags for Boston, where they will spend several weeks this summer taking classes and getting to know the two-dozen other students from across the country who were selected for the journey to medical school.
“Medical school is so competitive,” said Kaye Thompson-Rogers, Ph.D., interim director of the Health Careers Center at North Carolina Central University (NCCU). “You may have done everything you needed to do, yet still not get in because so many students are applying. The early selection program provides a better opportunity because the medical school professors get to know in advance who you are and what you can do.”
For the program, Boston University School of Medicine partners with NCCU and 12 other undergraduate colleges serving minority or underserved populations to offer provisional acceptance into BU School of Medicine for approximately 15 students each year. The selected students are groomed for success with rigorous undergraduate preparation and early exposure to medical school coursework and culture.
Hicks and Serafin-Molina were among top students identified as possessing strong academic talent and a dire to attend medical school.
To get this boost, students must commit to spending the summers after their sophomore and junior years studying in Boston, as well as their entire senior year, when they take both undergraduate- and medical school-level courses. If all goes as expected, Hicks and Serafin-Molina will return to Durham in the spring of 2017 to receive their undergraduate biology degrees from NCCU.
“It’s a tough program and a great preview of medical school,” said Wendy Heck-Grillo, an assistant professor of biology at NCCU who holds a Ph.D. in anatomy and neuroscience and advises students who make it into early selection program.
“And the additional challenge is to make sure they have met all of NCCU’s graduation requirements while taking their courses up in Boston. It works best when they take most of their physics, chemistry and calculus courses before the senior year.”
The students pay regular NCCU tuition while attending Boston University their senior year – a savings of more than $30,000 – and BU picks up the tab for summer school, both strong incentives for motivated students.
Dr. Kenya Goins is an NCCU graduate who completed the program and is now doing her residency at Self Regional Hospital in Greenwood, S.C. She is excited to be embarking on a career as a family practitioner, serving patients from all walks of life.
Goins calls her senior year of undergraduate school at Boston University “the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
“Everything about it was hard – the intensity of the coursework, adjusting to the culture of New England, the Boston weather,” she said. “Only now can I see the benefits of how well I was prepared, and I definitely I wouldn’t change anything about it.”
Goins said she might never have made it through the rigorous process without the camaraderie and support of NCCU Class of 2010 classmates Dr. Calbee Cooper and Dr. Erica Perry, who also were part of the program. Like Goins, Cooper is now completing her medical training as a resident, while Perry recently graduated from medical school, having earned a master’s degree in public health along the way.
Perry, who grew up in Durham, attended the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics for high school and set her sights early on becoming a doctor. She was eager to apply to the BU program during her sophomore year. Yet even for someone
so committed, the requirements were challenging.
“It was my goal, going into college, to become a doctor, but there was a point in the application process I thought: I don’t know about this,” she said. “But having Kenya and Calbee there and having their support played a huge role in my commitment.”
Each early selection student is paired with a physician mentor, whom they shadow to learn more about the practice of medicine and what is required of physicians on a day-to-day basis.
They also learn study and time-management skills that are crucial for success in medical school. Other required classes for undergraduates include medical terminology, a preparation course for the Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT, and a seminar entitled Race, Ethnicity and Health.
The program was designed in the late 1980s to encourage more minority students to become physicians and to improve the practice of medicine and medical research overall, said Dr. Samantha Kaplan, who is assistant dean of Diversity and Multiculturalism at BU Medical School. NCCU has been a participant since 1996.
“We wanted to expand the pool of physicians of color, so we decided to go to places where we would find large populations of intelligent and highly skilled students who were interested in pursuing medical careers,” Kaplan said.
Not only does the program assist minority medical school candidates, it indirectly helps improve patient care. Studies show that patients fare better when treated by doctors who share at least some of their ethnic traits. And a more diverse student body even helps prepare future doctors to serve patients from a variety of backgrounds, Kaplan added.
“Data from medical schools shows that a diverse student body encourages all students to feel better prepared,” she said. “That goes for rural, urban, black, white – all differences. Every dialogue brings an additional perspective.”
Finally, physicians who are from minority populations are more likely to practice in communities considered underserved by the medical profession.
From left, Kenya Goins, Calbee Cooper and Erica Perry celebrate together after being admitted to BU Medical School in 2010.
Students are invited to apply based on test scores, grades and interest in earning a medical degree. A total of 15 students from NCCU have been chosen for the program over the years.
Hicks and Serafin-Molina are talented and a good bet to make it through the program and earn the M.D., Thompson-Rogers said. The two were among top students identified as freshmen as possessing strong academic talent and a desire to attend medical school. They were invited to meet with a representative from BU, who comes to campus annually to discuss the program. Interested students apply during their sophomore year.
Hicks, who grew up in Columbus, Ohio, said she came to NCCU after turning down full scholarships at other universities. “I came here for a visit and it fit perfectly,” she added. “My family fell in love with NCCU, and I fell in love with it, too.”
Serafin-Molina is from Durham and attended J.D. Clement Early College High School on NCCU’s campus. “It will be something to get used to – being away from my family,” she said. “But I’m ready to get out of my comfort zone, ready for something a little different.”
Both women are Annie Day Shepard Scholars and serve as teacher-assistants in biology labs. “We work pretty closely with each other, so I think we will have a strong support system built in,” Hicks said.
Goins said she would advise newcomers to the Boston program to be prepared for lots of hard work and high-level challenges of the sort that many academically talented students have not yet had to confront.
“Usually what I tell students coming in to the program is to figure out what keeps you focused and hang on to that,” Goins said. “It’s going to be hard, and you’re going to feel like giving up. But if you can stay grounded in something – which, for me, was my faith – it will be a great experience.”
Written by Renee Elder
Originally published in the spring 2015 edition of NCCU Now.
Homepage caption: Jyla Hicks (left) and Karol Serafin-Molina visualize themselves as Boston University students, studying hard to pick up a few extra academic credits.