Nicholas James Smith grew up in a one-parent, African-American family in Aberdeen, Miss., a town of about 6,500 people just west of the Alabama line. As a youngster, he had asthma and frequently visited his family's physician, who was White. Young Nick never met an African-American doctor, but in high school he did get to know one from afar. As a sophomore, he read Gifted Hands, the autobiography of Ben Carson, MD, an African American from inner-city Detroit, who became director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University Hospital. The book solidified what had been a recurring thought: Nick Smith wanted to be a doctor.
He certainly seemed to have what it takes. He liked science and was a good student. Indeed, he was good at just about everything. At Aberdeen High, despite his asthma, he played football, basketball and track and still managed to be in the band—playing trumpet, another triumph over his chronic condition. Despite his accomplishments, however, Smith had doubt. "Coming from a small town, I didn't know if I was smart enough to be a medical student," he says.
Obviously, the concern was unfounded. Nick Smith today is a freshly minted MD beginning a five-year, ear-nose-and-throat surgery residency at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. One step in the evolution of this talented young man was an academic enrichment summer program for pre-medical students from minority backgrounds. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded the program, called the Minority Medical Education Program.
From Aberdeen High, Smith went to the University of Mississippi in Oxford on scholarship, majoring initially in chemistry and then pharmacy. As he neared the end of his undergraduate career, he learned of the summer pre-medical enrichment program. The University of Mississippi's pre-medical adviser provided some information, and Smith knew several Ole Miss students who previously attended the program at Yale University.
A number of universities across the country offered the six-week curriculum, but Smith had his eye on just one: the University of Alabama at Birmingham. A key attraction was that UAB, as the institution is widely known, included in-depth preparation for the Medical School Admission Test (MCAT)—more in depth than many of the other sites offered.
Also, UAB, which is less than a three-hour drive from Aberdeen, was already Smith's top medical school choice, and he hoped participation in the summer program would give his application a boost—which, in fact, it did. "It kind of allowed me to get a foot in the door," he says.
Smith participated in the UAB summer session in 2000—between his junior and senior years. The curriculum emphasized science review courses and included mock MCAT exams. Participants who scored well, Smith explains, were guaranteed an interview with the UAB medical school's admissions staff. Smith was one of those, and the resulting interview gave his chances for medical school acceptance a big boost, he says. Also, the review work improved his performance on the real MCAT, which he took for a second time shortly after the program ended. (His first attempt was several months before the program's start.)
In addition to the science courses, Smith took a class in interview skills, where he learned to anticipate likely questions in a medical school admissions interview. He also took a writing course that helped him prepare the autobiographical essay required of medical school applicants. The instructor critiqued draft after draft, says Smith.
Another valuable aspect of the summer program was the relationships he forged with members of the UAB medical faculty. Once a week he met with his assigned preceptor, a neurologist, Gwen Claussen, MD, and she wrote a letter recommending Smith for medical school admission—another significant plus for his application, he says. He also had a mentor in the community, a private practitioner who invited him home for dinner. Smith and the other participants lived together on campus, with room, board and other expenses covered by the program.
Smith applied to a number of medical schools in the Southeast, but withdrew his applications to the others when he received early acceptance at UAB. Without the summer enrichment program, he is not certain he would have gotten in, at least not on the first try, he says.
Smith entered medical school on scholarship in fall 2001 and graduated in 2005. He is the first person in his family to be a doctor, and the ceremony was a big event for his family members. Indeed, bigger for them than for him, says Smith, who is busy in the first of his five years of residency. "I know I've got a lot more work to do," he says.