Diversity in Medicine

My journey as an underrepresented minority in medicine with mentors who guided me along the way

If you’re an underrepresented minority student looking for a mentor, know that the mentor doesn’t have to be of your own race, though it’s nice if you can find that.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

A powerful lesson I learned in medical school is to be flexible and open-minded when you are searching for a mentor. In my case, a physician I was expecting to be a great mentor to me (he is my cousin and a fellow African American male) turned out to not be interested. However, I connected with other physicians who were more than willing to mentor me, and their support has made a huge impact on me during my journey in medicine.

If you’re an underrepresented minority student looking for a mentor, know that the mentor doesn’t have to be of your own race, though it’s nice if you can find that. None of my mentors were URMs, which makes my experience more impactful, considering that my cousin was unwilling to provide the mentorship that these other physicians did so graciously.

Here’s the story of my search for physician mentors. I hope it helps others see that mentors come in many different races and personal and professional backgrounds.

Upon entering my senior year of college, I looked forward to graduating and beginning my career in dietetics. After taking a four-week elective rotation with a renal transplant dietitian, I was inspired to explore this concentration further. Throughout my time in the track, I usually went to work alongside the transplant dietitian, learning medical nutrition therapy for our patients.

Discovering a passion for medicine

As the days passed, I attended numerous conferences and observed the process of selecting transplant recipients. I had initially expected to learn only about nutrition. However, this rotation led me to research and explore other medical topics in my free time. By the third week, I realized I wanted to become more involved in medicine. As an African-American medical student to-be, I was hoping to come across mentors who had been through the process and could guide me on what path would help me achieve my goals. I have witnessed too many other URMs during my medical training who either switched specialties or dropped out of medical school due to lack of support and guidance from other physicians.

Being a URM in medicine, I did struggle to find mentors of my own race. Nevertheless, I feel extremely fortunate for the mentors who guided me.

The transplant dietitian I rotated with in undergrad was a committed instructor. She gladly answered all my clinical nutrition questions with enthusiasm. Eventually, she suggested I pose some of these questions to a surgeon as well.

I soon found myself in the surgeon’s office multiple times a week.  He was welcoming and answered each of my questions. By our third exchange, he suggested that I join him for medical rounds. I followed the group of medical students that congregated each morning. I spent my remaining days learning with the medical students in the morning and joining the dietitian in the afternoon.

Doing medical rounds with this surgeon affirmed my desire to further my education and pursue a career in medicine. At the time, I was unsure whether I wanted to be a physician or physician extender.

When I told the surgeon, who had fostered and piqued my curiosity in medicine, about my new plans, he began to grin. He congratulated me and proclaimed his support. He advised me to notify him when I started applying to graduate schools so he could write me a letter of recommendation.

After eventually graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in dietetics, I relocated to my hometown. I passed the dietetics registration exam and immediately enrolled at my local university to complete the remaining prerequisite courses for medical school.

While taking classes, I volunteered at local nonprofits. I provided nutrition education and counseling to community members. My goal was to build a network within the community and potentially find a mentor in medicine. Unfortunately, networking quickly proved challenging and did not always lead to responses or mentors.

After reaching out to connections, I was reminded that I had an African American cousin in the area who was a physician. My father reached out to him, notifying him of my interest in medicine. He passed along his email address, and we confirmed a date for dinner at his home. I reminisced about the transplant surgeon’s encouragement and envisioned an even closer relationship with my cousin, given our familial bond.

He and his wife greeted me at the door and led me to their patio for dinner. The vibe was tranquil and the meal delicious; however, we spoke little about medicine, which had been the intent for dinner. As I drove home, I reflected. I had had an opportunity to connect with a family member in medicine and was grateful. I only wished my cousin had expressed more interest in my aspirations within medicine and my desire for mentorship with him. Nevertheless, I remained optimistic that I would find other physicians in the area to provide teaching and guidance.

Grateful for support

Not long after, I attended a community event where I presented nutritional information to local tennis players. While volunteering, I met an allopathic family medicine physician interested in nutrition and osteopathic manipulative medicine. She conducted weekly weight loss support groups at her practice. I participated in several sessions. At the last session, I shared my plans with the physician. She expressed the same enthusiasm as the surgeon had and requested that I stay in touch during the medical school application process.

As I prepared my application, I reached out to the transplant surgeon to request a letter of recommendation. He remained true to his offer and sent me his letter within two weeks.

When I received my medical school acceptance, I contacted the family physician I had met while volunteering. She was ecstatic. She offered support and advised me to keep in touch as a medical student to arrange a rotation in her office.

I’m so grateful for these two mentors and the other health care professionals I’ve encountered who were willing to take me under their wing. They have assisted in my personal and professional growth, and my experiences have taught me to remain prepared for opportunities. 

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