Walter Conwell, MD, Minority Medical Education Program, 2002

Student, Pritzker School of Medicine

    • March 30, 2007

The Problem: Talented college students from minority and disadvantaged groups with potential for medical or dental school often do not have role models or mentors to guide them through the pre-admission process.

Grantee Background: Walter Conwell, an African American, grew up in a one-parent family in a poor Gary, Ind., neighborhood. He had not the slightest idea of becoming a physician. "My mother would come to me and say, 'What do you want to do with your life?' I would say, 'I want to be a nurse.'" Why not a doctor, she would ask? No way, he thought.

Today Walter Conwell is a student at the University of Chicago's Pritzker School of Medicine, well on his way to becoming a physician and, if his current plan holds, a specialist in pulmonary critical care. Getting from the mean streets of Gary to one of the nation's premier medical schools took work, determination, a sharp mind and—as Conwell will tell you—a helping hand.

An important stop on the journey was an academic enrichment program he attended the summer before his senior college year. "It was truly the most unusual summer experience I'd ever had," he says. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded the program, the Minority Medical Education Program (now called the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program), to help minority college students prepare to apply for medical school admission.

Conwell grew up with little money and even fewer role models. He knew about nursing because his mother became a nurse when he was in high school. But it wasn't until he was a high school senior, working as an intern for the U.S. Steel Corp., that he met an African-American physician—a meeting that had a profound impact. "One of my mottos is: If you don't see it, you don't think you can be it," says Conwell.

The physician explained that he himself had waited until he was almost 30 to go to medical school because he had not thought he could ever be a doctor. "After he told me that, a wall broke down in my mind," says Conwell.

The planted seed germinated at Florida A & M University. Through an alumnus in Gary, the historically African-American institution in Tallahassee recognized Walter's promise and awarded a hefty scholarship. An early D in freshman chemistry—his first D ever—showed Conwell that despite his top-notch grades in high school, he had arrived way behind many of his classmates. As he proved himself academically, Conwell became certain medicine was for him and switched his major to pre-medical biology.

As graduation neared, with good grades and a good Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) score, Conwell considered his prospects for medical school admission. What he lacked, he concluded, was exposure to the medical field. Looking on the Web for summer opportunities, he came across the RWJF-funded enrichment program.

Conwell applied for and was accepted by the Chicago program (one of 11 sites), a collaborative curriculum run by the medical schools at Loyola, Northwestern and Rush universities, and the University of Chicago.

During his six weeks in Chicago, Conwell attended lectures on organ systems, observed surgeries and shadowed a general internist—an experience that kindled his interest in internal medicine. In one-on-one sessions with admissions officers, he got a clearer understanding of the admissions process.

"One thing I definitely got out of the program was mentorship," says Conwell. Aaron Horne Jr., a University of Chicago medical student who was helping coordinate program activities that summer, became a good friend. Conwell also developed a relationship with William McDade, M.D., Ph.D., the university's associate dean for multicultural affairs. "He's been my mentor ever since," says Conwell.

Conwell, who was accepted by a number of medical schools, chose to attend Chicago's Pritzker School of Medicine in no small part because of the ties he developed during the RWJF summer program. A combination of merit and need scholarships is helping Conwell finance his medical education. For three straight summers, he returned to the enrichment program as a paid coordinator.

RWJF Perspective: The Minority Medical Education Program was begun in 1988 to increase the number of highly qualified medical school applicants from minority groups that were underrepresented in medicine—primarily African Americans, Hispanics and American Indians. Over the past 20 years the program has evolved into the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program, a free, six-week academic program than offers eligible undergraduate students intensive and personalized medical and dental school preparation.

"The Summer Medical and Dental Education Program is evidence of the Foundation's long-standing commitment to increasing diversity in medicine and, more recently in dentistry," says Jane Isaacs Lowe, Ph.D., RWJF senior program officer. "We have broadened its scope to present enrichment opportunities to students from minority groups, rural areas and economically disadvantaged backgrounds who are interested in pursuing careers in medicine or dentistry."

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