On days when high school students visit the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine at Cleveland for the Aspiring DOctors Precollege Pipeline Program, no one needs to tell medical students and staffers what’s going on.
“We all know the day the students come,” said Isaac Kirstein, D.O., dean at the Heritage College, Cleveland. “There’s a buzz on the floors, and the high school students are all wearing their Aspiring DOctors polo shirts. Everybody is just walking up and saying ‘Hi.’ It’s been a perfect fit for the campus flow.”
By design, it’s also a perfect fit for some core goals of the Heritage College: training more osteopathic physicians for Ohio, helping them forge connections to local communities, encouraging them to stay in the region to practice, and especially, working to see that more of them come from underrepresented minority backgrounds.
“This is who we are,” Kirstein said. “It absolutely spins our flywheel a little faster.” Shortly after the campus welcomed its first medical students in July 2015, he challenged staffers “to come up with a comprehensive plan to increase underrepresented minority enrollment at our campus. I set a 20-by-‘20 admission target – to see if we could get 20 percent of our class to be URM by the class matriculating in 2020.”
The program offers slots to 200 students from three nearby schools – Warrensville Heights High School, John F. Kennedy PACT High School in Cleveland’s Lee-Harvard neighborhood, and High Tech Academy on the Cleveland Metropolitan campus of Cuyahoga Community College. Time spent on campus during the year increases as a student advances through high school, from one-half day for ninth graders to five days for seniors. Heritage College faculty, staff and students provide academic STEM enrichment, hands-on learning activities and one-on-one mentoring.
Aspiring DOctors has strong buy-in from community partners, with the city of Warrensville Heights pledging $12,500 for operating expenses, St. Luke’s Foundation providing $10,000 in scholarships for the first graduates, and the Cyrus Eaton Foundation awarding $1,800 for program support.
“The schools were really enthusiastic when we brought them the plan,” said Samantha Baker, assistant director of admissions and outreach at the Heritage College, Cleveland. “We talked about how engaged their students would be with faculty and staff and our own students, and they really liked those elements.”
Baker and Terra Ndubuizu, senior director of campus administration in Cleveland, designed the program after studying pipeline programs at other medical schools. They adapted the best features they saw to fit Kirstein’s parameters: offer meaningful engagement; bring students back each year of high school; help them get into an undergraduate program, preferably in health science; and track students in hopes of eventually seeing some enroll at the Heritage College.
Features that set the Heritage College’s program apart include its “hyper-local” focus, Kirstein said. “We are trying to bring our college’s mission and Ohio University’s spirit right to this neighborhood. We’re casting a narrow net geographically – but not aspirationally.”
Another standout feature is personal mentoring, with junior and senior participants assigned a medical school buddy. “Each time they come on campus, they have lunch with their student buddy,” Ndubuizu said. “We’ve created a guideline for each visit day, and we give the medical students topics and certain questions to talk about.”
Programming gives students a sense of what health care jobs are like. For example, Patricia Lambert, M.S.N., Clinical Training and Assessment Center coordinator, walks students through clinical simulations that range from “scrubbing in” with an operating room team to treating a high-tech patient simulator who’s having an asthma attack.
In designing activities, Lambert said, she aimed for experiences “that would be fun, that would be doable and that would be at their learning level.”
The strong holistic aspect of osteopathic medicine, which looks at the whole person in his or her social environment, is introduced by social medicine lecturer Sarah Rubin, Ph.D.
“I try to teach them basically what health disparities are, and how they’re connected to race,” Rubin explained. “I’m hoping I can appeal to their sense of injustice, and that if they look around their community and realize that it isn’t normal, and it isn’t random, maybe it will inspire them to become doctors so they can make an impact.”
The program’s partners call it a great fit for their needs and for those of the local community.
“Our community is filled with medical centers,” observed Warrensville City School Supt. Donald Jolly II, Ph.D. “Any kid who’s interested in anything in the medical field, we would like them to have the opportunity to work right here in our city.”
Susan Watson, college and career readiness coach at JFK PACT, said many students there “haven’t been used to exploring much as far as careers. They may not get that from family or friends, and have that dinner-table conversation about different opportunities. This program helps to really pique their interest, and I would say their confidence as well.”
“In Warrensville Heights, we value diversity,” said Angela Smith, city communications and activities director. “It was evident to us that the aim of this program was to make the health care workforce more inclusive and diverse. We also value education, and this invaluable program offers a comprehensive spectrum of academic enrichment.”
Warrensville 12 th graders Cylina Witherspoon and Aaleyah Little said their involvement has reinforced and clarified their dreams of working in health care.
“What I like best so far is meeting with our medical buddies, getting to talk to them about different medical careers,” said Little, who aspires to be a pediatric surgeon. “And I liked when I got to play the doctor role, doing the patient interviews.”
“ It has increased my interest, and helped me know better what I actually want to do in the medical field,” Witherspoon said. Thanks to Aspiring DOcs, she added, “I already have kind of a jump start.”