SMDEP Alum Pays It Forward with the Tour for Diversity in Medicine

Two young physicians challenge disparities by leading a program that helps underrepresented students become health care professionals.

    • October 10, 2012

Several weeks each year, Alden Landry, MD, MPH, and Kameron Matthews, MD, JD, leave their clinical practices behind, fill a bus with bright, young physicians, dentists, medical and dental students and take their act on the road.  Landry, an alumnus (2000) of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Summer Medical and Dental Education Program (SMDEP, formerly the Minority Medical Education Program) and Matthews run the Tour for Diversity in Medicine which aims to “educate, inspire and cultivate” students who are underrepresented in the nation’s medical and dental schools by reaching out to them on the nation’s college campuses.

While most pre-med mentoring programs wait for potential mentees to come to them, Matthews, medical director of the Erie Family Health Center in Chicago at Division Street, explains that, “in my work with the Student National Medical Association (SNMA) [the nation’s oldest organization supporting minority medical students], I realized that we were unable to reach many students in need of mentors.  They might have financial barriers to traveling to association events or they might not know about us, so we decided to bring the mentors to them.”

Landry, an emergency medicine physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and the founder of Hip Hop Health, Inc., which sponsors the Tour for Diversity in Medicine, and Matthews traveled to six campuses this fall and five in February.  Along with 12 mentors, they shared the type of wisdom that helped them build careers in medicine.  

“I was the first person in my family to become a physician and I realized that you can’t really do this on your own. You need help from other people who are invested in your future. I’ve had many mentors along the way.  But, unfortunately, minority students are often without mentors, so that’s what we are trying to do,” Landry says.   

The Tour’s “each one, teach one,” strategy is to bring young doctors, dentists or researchers who have just recently started their careers together with students interested in medicine, so that they can share information.  “We respect the senior people in our profession, but our mentors have just completed school. They are people the students can really relate to,” Landry says.  

“We travel primarily to historically Black colleges and universities, tribal colleges, community colleges and institutions that serve large Hispanic populations,” says Matthews of the Tour, which is also supported by the Aetna Foundation and the U.S. Army.  “We discuss the medical and dental school application process, choosing a career path, teach test-taking skills and discuss financial aid.” 

But even more important than nuts and bolts discussions about grades and scores are those moments when the Tour’s mentors talk to students about what it really takes to succeed. “You don’t often hear physicians or dentists admit that they struggled, but our mentors show the students that things can go wrong, but if you stick with it, you can achieve your goals,” adds Landry.

Getting Beyond the Myths

“It was nothing short of amazing,” says mentee Anthony Head of attending the Tour sessions at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio.  “You grow up thinking that you have to come from a privileged background to be a doctor and have perfect grades, but the mentors told stories of hardship.  They spoke honestly about low test scores and financial struggles. I got so much confidence from the experience.”

Head learned about the critical importance of health care—especially in poor African American communities—the hard way. “My foster mother died of a heart attack in my arms when I was 18,” he recalled. “She was only 42 and we didn’t even know she was sick.  I lost my biological mother to an aneurysm when I was two. And my foster father died from complications of diabetes. So, the need for primary health care has always played a huge role in my life.”

Despite a difficult childhood, Head built a career in health IT.  A married father of two small children, he graduated from Ball State University with a BS, and then obtained an MS in information and communication sciences. “I was working in health care on the technical side. But working with people was still on my mind. I felt passionate about finding a way to give back to my community,” says the Dayton, Ohio native.

“There’s a lot of pretentiousness in medicine and it breeds mistrust,” Head says. “That can keep people from seeking needed care, especially in some communities, so I want to be a doctor people feel they can trust.”

Now 33, Head is applying to medical school and says, “The Tour is so important. These are people like us, so it really makes a difference to be able to learn from them.”

Learning What it Takes

Tour for Diversity in Medicine mentor Brandon Henry hopes that his story will help students understand what they can overcome, but he also draws inspiration from the ambitious young people he meets on the Tour.  “I was at an SNMA conference when I saw a video about the Tour and I thought, I have to tell these students how I made it to medical school to show them what’s possible.  But it’s turned out to be an awesome experience for me as well.”

Life tossed more than a few challenges in Henry’s path that could have kept him from finishing college. “I was asked to leave my first college because my grades were so low (a 1.9 GPA).  I’d left school to take care of my ailing grandmother, and then she passed away and I just did not get back to work.”

But Henry also admits that he struggled to learn the needed discipline to achieve his academic goals. “I was four years into undergraduate school and I started out knowing I wanted to be a physician, yet I had not taken the science courses I needed, so I had three years to go.”

At that point, Henry says, “I had an epiphany. I closed my door, said a prayer, and realized I needed to change if I really wanted to be a doctor.  I moved out of my fraternity house and replaced football (he was a star athlete) and partying with the library.” It took Henry seven years to get his BA and he took the MCAT three times before being admitted to Howard University College of Medicine. He will graduate with his MD in May 2013 and wants to be a pediatrician.

“When I meet students on the Tour I say, ‘if a semester didn’t go well, do not quit. Pick yourself up and figure out your next step.’ I met one student who thought the door to medical school was closed because of his GPA. I told him, ‘it’s not closed, you have to reevaluate and find another way.’”

Ongoing Support

The Tour experience begins when Landry and Matthews meet the students, “but we keep in touch, answer their questions and keep them informed on our blog, Voices of Diversity,” Matthews says. “We build individual relationships with them and their advisors.”

As powerful as the Tour experience is for the more than 800 students who have participated, Landry adds that they hope to have an impact that goes far beyond the program.  “We are addressing a documented, national need to reduce health care disparities in minority populations by bringing more underrepresented students to the table to practice medicine or dentistry or conduct research.”

Learn more about the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program.
For an overview of RWJF scholar and fellow opportunities, visit www.RWJF Leaders.org.
Read a post on the RWJF Human Capital blog about the Tour for Diversity in Medicine.

Visit the Diversity Marketplace on RWJFLeaders.org.