A group of pre-med scholars stands in front of a Harvard Medical school Sign.

Pre-Med Scholars program prepares a diverse group of first-years for careers in medicine

Image credit: Cindy Seltzer

Author  Shannon OBrien
Published on 

Ilham Matiker ’27, a first-gen student from St. Louis, Mo., remembers when she first felt she could be a leader in a medical setting. She was participating in the HMS MEDscience Program at Harvard Medical School during Wintersession with the other students in the new Wellesley Pre-Med Scholars program. Working with medical mannequins, they practiced intubation, read X-rays, and tried to figure out what was wrong with the “patient.”

“I was giving the attending [physician] a spiel about what we had gone over. As I was talking, he was nodding along, and then he gave me a fist bump. I just felt so great after that,” she says. “I felt like I belonged in that space. I learned so much, and the people who ran the program were so kind and encouraging.”

Matiker is one of 11 first-years who were selected to participate in the inaugural year of the program, which helps prepare students from underrepresented backgrounds to apply for medical school.

Cindy Seltzer, director of health professions advising at the Lulu Chow Wang ’66 Center for Career Education, said the program was inspired by the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program and the Clare Boothe Luce Program. She and Layne Flynn, assistant director of health professions advising, wanted to find a way to assist students who were interested in medicine, particularly those who rarely feel represented in medical fields.

“It’s really, really challenging to get into medical school,” Seltzer says. “But before that, it’s challenging for some folks to see themselves in that role,” she adds, because they often don’t have family members who are doctors and their own medical caregivers typically don’t come from a similar background.

The Career Ed team designed the program for first-years from underrepresented backgrounds who have high financial need. They decided to work with first-years to make sure they “caught them early enough that they didn’t feel like they were behind in anything,” says Melissa Beers, senior instructor in biological sciences laboratory, who serves as a faculty mentor to the students. Several students from the cohort said they hadn’t even realized there were specific classes they needed to take if they wanted to apply to medical school.

  • Students stand around a medical mannequin.
    Pre-Med Scholars worked with medical mannequins while visiting Harvard Medical School.
  • Two students work with a medical mannequin.

Jennifer Manzano ’27 learned about the program at an org fair early in the fall semester. She decided to apply to have a better foundation for her pre-med journey. Marzano became interested in studying the brain while in high school in Houston, Texas, first in terms of psychology, and then in terms of neuroscience. She finds it amazing that “the brain has so many functions we don't know about, but it’s just one organ,” she says. “It’s like, you can hold it in your hand, and it's fascinating. And I realized neuroscience is where I’d like to focus for my career.”

“I want to be able to provide medical relief and health care access to a lot of different communities that don't have access to it...”

Ilham Matiker ’27

Marzano says the students and the staff in the program have helped her overcome her tendencies toward imposter syndrome. “Don’t underestimate yourself,” she says. “Pushing [yourself] to try out new things, to apply for things that you’re not 100% confident you’re going to get, but it doesn’t matter. … I think that's something I've really needed from them.”

Evelyne Umubyeyi ’27 was inspired by Dr. Lilit Garibyan, associate professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School and director of the Magic Wand Initiative at Massachusetts General Hospital, who spoke to the students. Umubyeyi says hearing from someone who moved to the U.S. from another country and now works as a doctor gave her hope. “Hearing stories of people who might have been in my shoes makes me feel like it’s a possibility that I can go to medical school,” says Umubyeyi, who is from Rwanda. “Through pursuing medicine here in the U.S., I can be that agent of change back [home].”

Why is it important for underrepresented students to see medical school and a career in medicine as possibilities? Flynn points to research that shows shared identities between patient and physician improves health outcomes. But, she notes, “about 5.7% of practicing physicians identify as Black or African American, while this population makes up about 13.6% of the U.S. total population.” Seltzer refers to a story from NPR that reported the average life expectancy in Boston can vary by as much as 23 years depending on zip code. “Increasing the diversity of practicing physicians addresses this disparity,” she says.

Students from underrepresented communities face another issue in STEM more generally: the “leaky pipeline,” a term Seltzer says describes “a slow attrition from the pre-med path that disproportionately impacts students from underrepresented backgrounds.” “The Pre-Med Scholars program addresses this issue by offering Wellesley students access to the resources, information, and connections necessary to be successful in their pursuit of a career in medicine,” she says.

The program also offers students camaraderie. “I feel like it gave me access to a community of people who have very similar goals, and so I feel less intimidated,” Matiker says. “We’re kind of like a community of folks who are here to help each other.” Manzano says the participants and the staff have formed a bond, which she appreciates. “It’s definitely reassuring, especially as a first-gen student, that people are there cheering for me, and it’s not on a superficial level,” she says.

“One of the key components of our program is building and fostering a community of students who come from similar backgrounds,” says Flynn. “The transition to college can be hard academically, but also emotionally. We want them to know they are not alone.”

Seltzer, Beers, and Flynn received 35 applications in this inaugural year and wish they could have included more than 11 students. They aspire to grow the program over time. They are thrilled that some members of the first cohort are already thinking about how they can help their communities by pursuing a medical profession.

“I want to be able to provide medical relief and health care access to a lot of different communities that don’t have access to it, specifically Black, immigrant, and refugee communities,” Matiker says. “In my [East African] community, there was a lot of distrust among people with regard to medicine. I think being a physician would mean alleviating some of [that].”