On Wednesday, students came to campus to learn clinical skills, such as how to calculate heart rate, listen to a heartbeat through a stethoscope and test one another’s reflexes. The students jumped at the opportunity to answer every question, and were eager to engage with the medical students conducting the lessons.

These weren’t traditional college students, however; instead these were 35 students from Cass Technical High School in Detroit who came to the University of Michigan as part of the Doctors of Tomorrow initiative. About once a month, the students come to meet with their mentors, learn about different parts of medical school and participate in hands-on interactive activities.

Doctors of Tomorrow was started in 2012 by University surgeon Jonathan Finks. Finks said it stemmed out of a realization that there is a lack of diversity in the Medical School and particularly a lack of students from Detroit. After investigating, Finks and his team found African Americans made up only 6 percent of the Medical School class.

“Medical schools across the country work hard to attract talented students from underrepresented groups, but the problem is that for students from underrepresented areas, often it can be hard to get into college, hard to do well, hard to stay in college,” Finks said. “And so we try to reach kids when they are younger through a program of mentorship and clinical enrichment, and try to get them to the point where we can try to get them to come to Michigan as sort of a pipeline program, continue to mentor them while they’re here and eventually help those who are interested get into medical school.”

The high school students, who are selected through a competitive application process by members of the DoT team from the University of Michigan as well as faculty at Cass Tech, are each paired with one or two first-year Medical students.

Each month, the students learn something different at their visits — everything from learning how to take blood pressure to shadowing physicians. They also participate in a capstone project, where they work on a health issue such as nutrition or youth violence and try to come up with a project they can do to help solve it. The students work in conjunction with community service organizations in Detroit on their capstones.

Since the high school students are also freshman, the program is one of near-peer mentoring, as Adrianne Haggins, who conducted a study on the DoT program, explained. Haggins said the mentors and the mentees found the program to be incredibly rewarding and helpful.

“The high school students appreciated the consistent contact that they were able to achieve, despite the fact that medical students are typically very busy, as well as the high school students being busy taking care of their own academic work,” Haggins said. “They were able to balance face to face meetings along with interacting with each other through email and text messages, and students remarked on how good it made them feel when their mentor checked on them.”

Haggins said on the mentors’ side there were also clear benefits, as the mentors believed they could shape the trajectory of the student and build deeper relationships because they believed they could be a long-lasting resource for the students. Finks found this to be true as well when discussing with Medical students who participated in the program.

“It’s an opportunity for them to take leadership, it’s an opportunity for them to expand their cultural horizons and I think it works towards an important goal. And diversity is universally recognized at the University as an important goal, but we also put on seminars for them about leadership and mentorship and try to give them as much guidance as we can — they take away a lot from the experience,” Haggins said. “Most of the ones I’ve talked to will say it’s the best thing they’ve done at the University, and for me it’s the best part of my job for sure.”

The other finding Haggins highlighted was the way the differences and similarities between the Medical students and the high school students manifested themselves.

“Although the Medical students come from often privileged backgrounds, and non-minorities often make up a Medical School class, and although the majority of the students come from an underrepresented background, and come from the inner-city area, they still were able to feel energized and excited and see themselves in that Medical student role through the relationships that they developed,” Haggins explained. “So despite discordance based on background, they still were able to develop meaningful connections and make the students feel like they could do this one day.”

Theo Chillis, an LSA sophomore majoring in bio-molecular science, was in the first class of Cass Tech students to participate in DoT. He now serves as the undergrad director to give back to the program that helped him figure out what career he wanted to pursue.

“I just wanted to make it so that younger students from my high school could see that it was possible to go to the University of Michigan and be a person of color at a predominantly white school,” Chillis said.

Chillis said the program was a formative experience and talked about how much he enjoyed having a relationship with his mentor that continues to this day.

“I remember meeting my mentor, Steven Weinberg, and he was a first-year Medical student and I was a freshman in high school, so we were both pretty much starting a new journey,” Chillis said. “He really impacted me, and I really wanted to do medicine after joining the program. He actually came during his first-year residency and took me out to Zingerman’s, and I still talk to him over the phone.”

The Doctors of Tomorrow program is expanding, and it hopes to be able to keep up with this increasing interest through donations and support from the University. Chillis said he hopes to be a part of the program as it continues to grow and expand.

“My mentor gave me a picture of a child sleeping next to a book in the library that his mentor gave to him, and he has his name on the back along with the year he graduated undergrad and Med School, as well as his mentor’s graduation dates,” Chillis said. “I hope to write my name on the back of it as well when I graduate Medical School and undergrad, and pass it on to someone else.”

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