Nia Augustine knew she was destined for medical school as soon as she donned a white coat.
“I looked at myself in the mirror and smiled and knew this was for me,” said Augustine. “And it was so hard to give it back at the end of the program, but I know I’ll be back for it.”
Augustine and 29 other college students from across the country completed the University of Virginia’s six-week summer medical leadership program on Friday with tears, hugs and a video slideshow. The program, begun in 1984, aims to get under-represented minority, low-income and rural students through medical school and into positions of leadership.
“We actually have an outsized number of under-represented minority students at UVa right now,” said Dr. Michael Williams, outgoing director of the program. “But we need to translate that to residents, to faculty, to positions of leadership.”
Williams himself went through the leadership program in 1989, before attending UVa’s School of Medicine. It was immensely helpful to get a crash course in basic classes and meet people before the semester began, he said.
When he attended, the program was focused solely on boosting the numbers of under-represented medical students. But, as the program has changed funders and directors, Williams said he hopes it can focus on helping those students lead clinics, organizations and companies. They must be able to find teams and support each other, he said.
“To quote my dad, ‘If you’re not at the table, you’re on the table,’” Williams said. “As students navigate through the ebbs and flows and times of change, I hope they can understand that health care is a team sport.”
Dr. Taison Bell, an infectious-disease physician, will become the director of the program.
“The purpose of diversity in leadership is not to increase numbers,” Bell said. “I don’t care about that. It’s about quality. I want high-quality leadership in the classroom, leading medical teams and starting companies.”
More than 600 past participants have obtained medical degrees, and 29 are medical school faculty members, according to data from the program.
Williams said that UVa has more under-represented minority students than many of its peer institutions. According to university data, the medical school enrolled 945 students in 2017. That fall, 9 percent of students were African-American, 15 percent were Asian, 9 percent were Hispanic and 4 percent reported as multi-race.
Dr. Claudette Dalton, the medical school’s former assistant dean for community-based medical education, offered advice to the class about overcoming obstacles and finding ways to serve others.
“Sometimes, your niche isn’t where you first think it is,” Dalton said.
When she hit the glass ceiling of her career and was denied a leadership role, Dalton said she got angry. But she’d now encourage future leaders to instead think ahead about how to handle tough situations and change the system for the better.
“You want to be one of the people with the golden hands and the golden personality, too,” Dalton said.
Ahkiya Allen, a senior at Purdue University, told the group she hopes to become a surgeon.
“[An operating theater is] a really good illustration of a team effort,” Dalton said.
Other students said they knew they were interested in medical school but hadn’t yet decided on specialties.
“I just think this program has really helped me become a leader and see the representation that we all need,” said Justice Obasohan, a sophomore at East Carolina University.
Augustine, currently a second-year at UVa’s Curry School of Education, said the program has reaffirmed her interest in medicine and she will spend the next two years deciding on specific tracks.
“I’m no longer this girl, wondering if medicine is for me,” she said.