BY ROBIN EISNER
ADLER PEROTTE’08 SAYS HE DECIDED TO ATTEND P&S FOR A variety of reasons. He wrote his senior thesis at Princeton about a computational model of memory and wanted to come to the medical school where the neuroscience faculty is deemed the best in the country. He also is considering pursuing an M.B.A. in addition to an M.D., and Columbia offers a dual degree. Additionally, P&S is close to his home in Linden, N.J., giving him an opportunity to see his family every now and then.
But another significant incentive to attend P&S for Mr. Perotte who was accepted to eight medical schools was Hilda Y. Hutcherson, M.D., associate dean for diversity and minority affairs and assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology. “Dr. Hutcherson was instrumental in my coming to Columbia,” Mr. Perotte says. “On interview day, her office held a breakfast for minority applicants and made it known that she and her staff would be a resource for us throughout our years here. She offered a personal touch that was comforting and real. She told us P&S had a vested interest in our well-being and education. It was nice to know.”
Besides impressing Mr. Perotte, Dr. Hutcherson’s warmth and commitment to increasing diversity at P&S during the past few years has influenced many other underrepresented minority applicants to come to the school. When Dr. Hutcherson took the job in 2001, minority enrollment for the entering class was 8 percent. In 2003, it rose to 18 percent, and to 23 percent in 2004. In 2005, minority enrollment slipped to 15 percent, but the level is still double 2001 levels and P&S remains among the top dozen schools in minority recruitment. She attributes the recent falloff to increased competition from other medical schools, which are “becoming increasingly more aggressive for the minority pool of applicants.”
What P&S and other institutions know is that increased minority representation in medicine is vital to the future of health care in this country. “Increasing diversity leads to improvement in the health care of underserved minority populations,” says Dr. Hutcherson. “Studies show that minority doctors are more likely to practice in areas where minorities live and, as a result, access to health care improves when the number of minorities goes up.” Also, minority patients, she says, feel more comfortable and are more likely to follow instructions and recommendations from doctors who look like them and who identify with their culture. “That translates to better quality of care.”
Dr. Hutcherson attributes her success in recruitment to the leadership at Columbia Gerald Fischbach,
who have created an academic milieu open to minority students and supportive of her efforts. Her efforts include holding events on campus and at her home for prospective and current students. She travels to university and college campuses throughout the country for recruitment fairs. She pursues potential enrollees through letter and email campaigns and points them to her office’s Web site: www.cumc.columbia.edu/dept/ps/minority/minorityaffairs/ Her mission: to tell students about the advantages of coming to P&S and to support them when they are here.
“We tell prospective students that P&S is not a cold ivory tower, as they might have thought, but that it has a diverse faculty and student body and is situated in the Washington Heights community within the greatest melting pot in the world New York City,” Dr. Hutcherson says. “Students in the middle of the country may not know about the multicultural environment immediately surrounding the medical school and its affiliated New York-Presbyterian and Harlem hospitals.”
For potential students, Dr. Hutcherson enumerates the range of activities at P&S, including the P&S Club, the most active and comprehensive organization for extracurricular activities in American medical education and the umbrella organization for 35 groups, including BALSO the Black and Latino Student Organization. BALSO members mentor younger medical students and undergraduates, promote Latino and Black history month initiatives, are involved with national medical student organizations, participate in Harlem and community health fairs, organize lectures, and host social events.
A tradition of BALSO second-year students is to organize the programs to help first years. Indeed, Mr. Perotte decided to become active in BALSO as its vice president because “whenever I needed them, they were there, providing an infrastructure for social and educational development.”
Such collegiality in P&S students and faculty who strive to help students succeed is also what Dr. Hutcherson stresses to potential minority applicants. Academic and psychological support abound from fellow students, tutoring programs, counseling, and mentors. She also points to the school’s financial assistance, including merit and need-based scholarships and loans.
Prospective students quickly learn from the current students during interview and revisit days that Dr. Hutcherson’s office door is always open. “They need not feel lost,” she says. “They need not flounder. No appointment is necessary and someone will always be available to a student. I even give students my cell phone number.”
During revisit weekend, when students accepted to P&S return for another look at the campus, she invites minority students to her home in Pelham in Westchester County for dessert and coffee after a dinner on campus. Current students and faculty members of color also visit. “It’s fun for them to see my four kids, dog, and husband and to jump on the trampoline in my backyard,” Dr. Hutcherson says. “It helps reinforce the idea that P&S is a family and we are in this together.”
Complementing Dr. Hutcherson’s efforts are other programs at the school aimed at increasing diversity and making the environment more welcome and sensitive to minority students. Five years ago, for example, the Office of Diversity started leading a summer program, called Summer Medical Education Program (SMEP), for minority undergraduates interested in medicine and dentistry. The six-week intensive program introduces students to the medical school curriculum and offers career counseling by Dr. Hutcherson and her staff. SMEP complements the program for minority high school students, who are taught science by medical students on Saturdays from October to May.
Current BALSO president Kemi Oni’08 participated in SMEP. Ms. Oni, who majored in engineering at Duke, says it helped her decide to come to P&S. “When I was here in the summer we would eat lunch with Dr. Hutcherson,” she
says. “Talking to an administrator at a medical school meant a lot to me. Undergraduates don’t often get such a valuable experience. When it came time to choose a school, seeing Dr. Hutcherson again during the interview process and hearing what students said about the school made me comfortable that my needs would be addressed.”
Being part of a diverse student population and seeing patients from different cultures also is valuable for all medical students.
Since 2001, P&S has included coursework for medical students in cultural competency as part of their first- and second-year clinical practice courses. Plans exist to expand material to all four years of medical school. The coursework addresses such issues as the disparity of health care for minority communities and how lifestyle, gender, culture, and society influence health and adherence to medical treatment.
“The cultural competency aspect of our coursework is very important in that it recognizes that part of being a physician means you have to understand that people from different cultures may experience and express pain, for example, or other aspects of their health in different ways,” Ms. Oni says. “Being part of a diverse student population and seeing patients from different cultures also is valuable for all medical students because we learn from all these experiences.”
Minority populations are the fastest growing segment of the American population. It is estimated that by 2050, Hispanics, African-Americans, Native Americans, and Asian-Pacific Americans will make up 48 percent of the country’s population.
To ensure that students of color always have an opportunity to come to P&S and that money is not a barrier to entry, the alumni of BALSO started a $10 million fund-raising effort. Campaign for Diversity, led by Brenda Aiken’81, aims to provide full tuition assistance to minority students who do not have the means to pay for medical school. “The escalating cost of a medical school education is having a devastating effect on minority students considering a career in medicine,” Dr. Aiken says, “not to mention the backlash on the communities we serve.” Dr. Aiken is finding that BALSO and other alumni are eager to help.
Besides dipping into their bank accounts, BALSO alumni are giving more of their time to P&S minority students. Two years ago, the Campaign for Diversity began a mentoring program to match minority students with BALSO alumni, and 30 students have participated. Tresha Edwards’07, who has an interest in pursuing psychiatry, found the experience of meeting routinely during her first year with a mentor, Maria Oquendo’84, professor of clinical psychiatry, invaluable. “I would go to her house for dinner and we would talk about psychiatry but also about balancing professional and personal life,” Ms. Edwards says. “She told me that she had her busy times but it was important for her to be home with her children by 6 p.m. and have dinner with her family.” Being able to balance work and home life is important to Ms. Edwards and seeing Dr. Oquendo do it impressed her. “It gave me a sense of what my future life as a doctor might entail,” she says.
Dr. Oquendo says her work as a mentor is important because medical school is such a daunting experience andstudents can use help. “Since I survived the process, I thought I could be helpful to minority women,” Dr. Oquendo says. When she was at P&S, minority mentoring programs did not exist but it is important for students to see someone like herself a Latina physician who has done well from a research, clinical, and publication perspective at an academic medical center and who addresses research and clinical issues in both minority and majority populations. Dr. Oquendo is an internationally renowned expert in bipolar disease in all ethnic groups and has published research about suicide ideation in Latinos, too.
To continue to provide as many opportunities as possible for minority students at P&S, Dr. Hutcherson is working harder to recruit more students of color to the school. She is hoping to get more Native Americans and Dominicans, minorities not adequately represented. “Considering Washington Heights is a Dominican area we are working with the community to encourage students to come to the school,” Dr. Hutcherson says. She also is reaching out to noninvolved minority faculty members to encourage their involvement in recruitment efforts.
As for Mr. Perotte, he remains open to what his future in medicine holds, but he knows P&S is giving him a superb education. He has thought about neurosurgery but also is interested in neurology and radiology. “In the long run, regardless of what I do, I realize that what I want most out of my professional life is flexibility,” he says. “I have always lived a very multidimensional life and I want that to continue.”