The words “cardiothoracic surgeon” are most likely not found in the vocabulary of any two-year-old, except for Barbara Williams, a second-year medical student at the University of California Irvine School of Medicine.
Williams recently completed clinical cardiovascular research at the nationally renowned Mayo Clinic last summer—an experience that affirmed the decision when she was two to become a cardiothoracic surgeon. The first in her family to graduate from college, Williams studied biology at UC Riverside, then completed a post-baccalaureate program at UCI before moving on to its medical school, where she is one of four African Americans in her class of 104 students.
“As African-Americans, our membership on campus is not strong,” she said. “We have a common goal to increase diversity within the medical school.”
To reach that goal, Williams is helping to plan the 11th annual pre-health conference at UCI co-hosted by the university chapters of the Latino Medical Student Association (LMSA) and its African-American counterpart, the Student National Medical Association (SNMA). Organizers say the goal is to help equip students from underrepresented communities with tools they may otherwise not encounter in their own environments, whether because of financial or cultural or educational barriers, as they navigate the long, hard road that is medical school.
The two-day conference includes workshops on the MCAT and personal statement, discussions with admissions representatives, and a panel medical school students from minority backgrounds. Friday's portion of the conference will cater to local high school districts like Santa Ana and Long Beach Unified School District, which have a high concentration of Latino and African-American students respectively. Williams, a member of SNMA, says she thinks it's encouraging and important for young people to see African-American doctors, which is something she rarely saw growing up.
“I think it's important to go in the community, show them our faces, and our white coats, and let them know that we're here, and they can do it as well,” said Williams.
A report conducted by the Association of American Medical Colleges indicates that out of 482 medical students at UC Irvine, there are just 16 African American students and 63 Latino students. UCI has one of the lowest numbers among African-American enrollment across the UC campuses, in addition to UC San Diego and UC Berkeley. Yelenia Palacios, a second-year medical student and member of LMSA, says that although her family was supportive of her ambitions, no one told her to study for the SAT's in high school or informed her of how difficult the transition might be from high school to college. She never received mentorship until she attended UCI, and became active with the campus club Chicanos-Latinos for Community Medicine where older members mentored her throughout college, nurturing her ambitions to enter the medical field.
Through word of mouth, she started attending the conference and found the medical student panel to be the most rewarding part. “It's actually so encouraging, motivating and uplifting when you hear about the students that struggled but made it,” said Palacios. “And [they] were from neighborhoods similar to where I was from.”