Creating change

Variety in diversity: Making medicine accessible for candidates from all walks of life

This month, we speak with Dajamen “Daj” Mitchell, OMS III, about his path to medicine and focus on supporting underrepresented minority medical students.


Hello readers! My name is Reshma Pinnamaneni. I’m a third-year osteopathic medical student (OMS III) and this month’s contributor for The DO’s Diversity in Medicine column. Before we get acquainted with our guest, I want to introduce our theme: variety in diversity. Our profession is truly a wonderful amalgam of different people from different walks of life. I want to use this platform to highlight some of our proud DOs and DOs in training.

Compared to previous years, the number of African American and Latinx medical school applicants and matriculants is on the rise. However, these populations still only make up 10% and 12%, respectively, of the national medical student body, according to recent data from the Association of American Medical Colleges. We, as a profession, have made considerable strides toward diversification, but we still have a long way to go.

I recently discussed this issue, and others related to diversity and healthcare disparities, with Dajamen “Daj” Mitchell, OMS III, a student at Midwestern University Arizona College of Osteopathic Medicine. During his first year of medical school, Mitchell helped establish a chapter of the Student National Medical Association (SNMA), a student-governed organization focused on supporting current and future underrepresented minority medical students and addressing the needs of underserved communities.

Let’s jump right in, Daj. What initially drew you to medicine?

As a kid, I was always interested in science. My mother fostered my curiosity and allowed me access to the kitchen with a book full of science experiments. I remember being very excited to turn a penny green with vinegar. My interest in science was strong, but my true passion for the field of medicine wasn’t sparked until around age 11 when my brother became sick. He was losing weight and had what I now recognize as altered mental status. He just wasn’t himself.

Initially, no one had answers for him or my family. We even had people write us off and insinuate illicit drug use as the cause, but it wasn’t. In our search for help, we met a Black resident who believed us and ran some lab tests based on a hunch. Those labs showed that my brother was HIV positive and was quickly progressing toward AIDS. This turned our world inside out. We did not know how to handle this information or how to support my brother.

I remember coming home from school to keep him company. It was a long road, but he recovered. This incident sparked a desire in me to know more about my brother’s condition and to help others like him. The African American community is the most affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic and it has other unique healthcare and cultural needs. Following in the footsteps of the resident who helped my family, I want to be at the forefront of advocacy for my community and patients. That experience really kickstarted my journey to medicine.

Speaking of your journey, have you experienced any setbacks along the way?

Medical school is not typically a straight path for most students and I’m no exception. Like a lot of people, I worked throughout undergrad to support myself. I worked as a dishwasher all four years and as a patient transporter to increase my clinical experience. Finding opportunities to shadow physicians in my community was hard. Especially because some people judged me based on my dreadlocks and appearance. I cold called physicians in my area for months with no luck.

Dajamen “Daj” Mitchell, OMS III

On the suggestion of a friend, I decided to call the medical schools I was interested in to ask about alumni in my area. That was when I found my mentor, Norris Polk, MD, a graduate of Meharry Medical College. He believed in me and encouraged me to pursue my dream of becoming a physician. Over the years, I shadowed him and leaned on him for support and guidance.

Graduating was bittersweet for me. I became the first person in my family to earn a bachelor’s degree, but I was told by my undergraduate advisor that my GPA wasn’t sufficient for medical school. It was heartbreaking. I pursued and completed a two-year master’s degree and brought my grades up. I also participated in a research project and took the MCAT. Needless to say, handling a full load of graduate coursework plus lab responsibilities is not conducive to MCAT prep. I took that exam 3 times, each time doing a little bit better than the last. It was grueling, but it all paid off when I got accepted into med school in 2020.

I was so excited to share the news with my family, especially my mother as she had been my biggest source of support. That happiness was short-lived though. My mother passed away in the summer of 2020 from chronic conditions, chief of which was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The much-awaited start of my medical school journey was filled with grief and loss. I’ve made my peace with her passing and, in a way, it encourages me to fight even harder for minority communities. I continue to try to make her proud every day.

Thank you for being so candid with us, Daj. I have one last question for you. It’s a little cliche, but what are some changes you would like to see in medicine?

To name a few: I would like to see more people of color in medicine, specifically those from Black and Brown underserved communities; I want more programs and resources to support minority applicants; and I want more cultural competency training.

These suggestions are three-fold. Medicine is a great profession and there is a growing need for physicians in the coming years. We have so many worthy applicants and students who overlook medicine because of the financial hurdles. Attracting more people of color to support underserved communities not only boosts morale, but it actually increases positive medical outcomes. I think getting rid of in-person medical school interviews during COVID-19 was a great equalizer. Fee Assistance Programs for the MCAT and applications are also very helpful. We need more drastic changes like these to make our profession more accessible to candidates from all walks of life.

I think cultural competency training through classes and student organizations should be a top priority as well. All medical graduates should be well-versed in the various cultural and socioeconomic hurdles their patients and some of their colleagues have to navigate.

As a medical student and pre-med, seeing Black physicians was always encouraging. It gave me hope that I could be there someday. A mentorship pipeline could provide that hope to many students like me, and help pave the way for a more diverse medical team.

Couldn’t have said it better, Daj. Thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to speak with us. Any closing advice or tips you want to impart?

  • Pre-Med Community is a great place to start for pre-med resources.
  • Use Reddit and Anki to your advantage! Reddit is a great platform for discourse, advice and study material. Reddit and Anki should be the bread and butter for every pre-med/med student.
  • Khan Academy and Ninja Nerd are a couple of awesome and free channels. They cover content from organic chemistry to pathophysiology.
  • Look into scholarships and apply! It’s a great way to utilize resources. Med School Insiders provides some amazing scholarship and grant opportunities for minority medical students.
  • In an increasingly virtual and global world, be sure to leverage social media to your advantage. I’ve networked with plenty of folks through social media like LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask questions!
  • Lastly, reach out to schools of interest like I did and ask for physicians in the area that can mentor you and guide you. Searching for contact information via the alumni network, calling and emailing can go a long way. That is why I am here today as a third-year medical student.
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.

Related reading:

Black History Month: Recognizing the Black DOs I looked up to during my medical training

Food from the soul: A history of African American culture and nutrition

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