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VCU academic advisers are stepping into the classroom — and beyond it — to support underrepresented students

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Through special topics courses and campus groups, university academic advisers are providing a forum for professional and academic growth.

Henry Lewis was sitting in his living room in September 2015 when he decided to create a plan to help more black men get into medical school. His idea began with a homework assignment. 

“Maggie Tolan, our assistant vice provost for advising, had tasked all academic advisers with creating an outreach campaign for a population we thought needed it,” said Lewis, a pre-professional health adviser in Virginia Commonwealth University’s University Academic Advising unit. “I had just read a report by the Association of American Medical Colleges that focused on the issue that there aren’t enough black men going into medicine.”

The report, “Altering the Course: Black Males in Medicine,” provided medical school matriculation data from 1978 to 2014. The stagnation for black men was startling, Lewis said. In 1978, 1,410 black men applied to medical school in the United States and 542 matriculated. In 2014, black men accounted for 1,337 applicants and 515 enrolled students. 

Lewis, sitting in his apartment, thought about the report, released only weeks earlier, and his task. He decided to combine them. The proposal began simply enough: Lewis would identify black male students interested in pursuing careers in health professions and then contact them.

“I would let them know I was an adviser and that I was dedicated to helping black men become doctors,” Lewis said. “I put together the proposal for Maggie. That’s how it all started.”

Henry Lewis, a pre-professional health adviser in University Academic Advising, created Black Men in Medicine to help more black men get into medical school. Today, about 25 students are part of the group. (Julia Rendleman)
Henry Lewis, a pre-professional health adviser in University Academic Advising, created Black Men in Medicine to help more black men get into medical school. Today, about 25 students are part of the group. (Julia Rendleman)

Black Men in Medicine

Lewis called the campaign “Black Men in Medicine.” He began by attacking pieces of the problem relevant to his profession. Black students surveyed in the AAMC study reported a lack of access to accurate information from their advisers about how to get into medical school. Lewis said he wasn’t surprised to read this.

“Many pre-med advisers think they are medical school admissions personnel. They try to tell students whether they will get in or not instead of telling them what will make them competitive,” Lewis said. “Sometimes a student just has that one person, that one person discourages them and they find something else to do, when they really could have been a great doctor.”

Lewis aims to fix this. In the two years since he first thought of the idea, Black Men in Medicine has evolved from an advising effort into a group that creates bonds between aspiring doctors, organizes seminars addressing the challenges they face on their way to medical school, and connects them to black physicians and medical school students in the Richmond community. Today, about 25 students are part of Lewis’ group.

Justin Thomas, a rising senior in the College of Humanities and Sciences and a member of Black Men in Medicine, is working this summer in infection prevention at VCU Medical Center. (Julia Rendleman)
Justin Thomas, a rising senior in the College of Humanities and Sciences and a member of Black Men in Medicine, is working this summer in infection prevention at VCU Medical Center. (Julia Rendleman)

“It’s been a great opportunity,” said Tyrone Simpson, an aspiring surgeon who will graduate in December from the College of Humanities and Sciences. “Honestly I don’t think I would be as far as I am without this.”

Simpson is applying to medical school this summer. He attended a networking event Lewis organized in December 2016 for students, black physicians and administrators from the School of Medicine. There, Simpson met Cedric Campbell, M.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Anesthesiology. Simpson later spent more than 50 hours shadowing Campbell at VCU Medical Center. 

“One day we’ll be in the OR and the next day we’ll be making clinical rounds and the next day he’ll be advising staff members,” Simpson said. “Seeing all these different aspects of medicine is very eye-opening. Medicine is not an African-American dominated field so it’s nice to know that I’m not alone in this, that there is a network of black men in medicine.”

The group also provides peer support, said Justin Thomas, a rising senior in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

“I think we’re accountable to each other,” Thomas said. “Medicine is very difficult. I have a support network and even I get discouraged every now and then: Will I make it? Will I do well on my MCAT? Will schools like me? I think having this network drives those fears away. The encouragement is a great boost.”

Thomas said the workshops Lewis hosts — including a two-part seminar last spring on paying for medical school — are another benefit to joining Black Men in Medicine. Simpson agrees.

“That’s one of the things very few people talk about — most of the focus is on grades and MCAT scores. But how do you finance it? How do you pay for medical school?” Simpson said. “That’s an aspect that needs to be discussed. It’s good information to have." 

University academic advisers Steph Dorman, left, Lauren Jackson, center, and Sonya Barnes are involved in similar efforts to help specific groups of students at VCU. (Julia Rendleman)
University academic advisers Steph Dorman, left, Lauren Jackson, center, and Sonya Barnes are involved in similar efforts to help specific groups of students at VCU. (Julia Rendleman)

Providing guidance to underrepresented students

Lewis is not alone in his effort to help specific groups of students. Many of his UAA colleagues, sparked by Tolan’s charge, are involved in similar endeavors. Steph Dorman, a discovery adviser, launched a course in fall 2016 to help LGBTQ students navigate college. Lauren Jackson, another discovery adviser, is developing a “Women of Color” professional development class, set to begin next spring. Sonya Barnes, Lewis’ colleague in pre-professional health advising, is creating a course for first-generation college students interested in health care.

“First-generation students face challenges in understanding what it takes to be competitive in college — most do not have someone at home who can help them navigate it,” Barnes said. “Now combine that with someone who wants to be a physician, a dentist or a pharmacist. That adds an additional layer of challenges — prerequisites, community service, clinical experience. I want to provide resources and guidance to this population.” 

Though Barnes, Dorman, Jackson and Lewis are engaged in separate efforts, there are recurring themes to their work. Among them: showing students that people who look like them, and come from similar backgrounds, can be successful.

“It’s important [for students] to see that — to see that they can do it,” said Carlton Goode, an academic adviser in UAA.

Carlton Goode, an academic adviser, created a class,
Carlton Goode, an academic adviser, created a class, "Men of Color," four years ago to help improve graduation rates among black men. Ninety-eight percent of students who have taken his class have either graduated or are still at VCU and in good academic standing. (Julia Rendleman)

Goode has been a torchbearer for these efforts at VCU. He created a class, “Men of Color,” in 2013, two years before Tolan arrived at the university. Across the country, Goode said, black men have lower graduation rates from four-year universities — particularly at institutions where white students make up more than 50 percent of the undergraduate population. Though VCU has received national recognition for significantly boosting graduation rates for underrepresented minority students, graduation rates for black men have historically lagged behind other groups.

Goode has studied this problem for years. He created “Men of Color” to address it. Discussions in the class cover socioeconomic issues, growing up without fathers, relationships and being role models. To date, 107 students have taken the course. The curriculum is carefully planned, sometimes a semester or summer in advance of the class, Goode said. He invites guest speakers from across the country and connects each student with professional and student mentors.

The result is a class that blends interpersonal development and career services. In one session, Goode rents out Shafer Hall and sets the room for dinner to review formal dining etiquette. He even helps students with one of the most fundamental pieces of a job interview: deciding what to wear. 

“Say you had never purchased a suit before — which color suit would you buy? How do you tie a tie? How do you ‘work a room’ at a mixer? Those soft skills matter,” Goode said. “It takes somebody maybe 25 to 30 seconds to size somebody up — the way you carry yourself, the way you shake somebody’s hand.

“You want to look like you belong there and have a conversation without worrying which glass you pick up at the dinner table.”

Brandon Mason, a senior in the School of Business and L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, took Goode’s class at the beginning of his sophomore year. The course was valuable in several ways, he said. 

“Not only is the content of the class really important, but Carlton and the speakers and mentors he brings into the class are very relatable,” said Mason, who currently is in his second internship rotation at Dominion Energy. “They care about you. And they provide different perspectives. Carlton talks about how we can constantly learn something from everyone we meet — an adult, another student, maybe somebody in a different field. That was one of the more important topics we covered.” 

The efforts within UAA are making a difference for underrepresented students, said Jackson, second from the right. Her “Women of Color” professional development class is set to begin next spring. (Julia Rendleman)
The efforts within UAA are making a difference for underrepresented students, said Jackson, second from the right. Her “Women of Color” professional development class is set to begin next spring. (Julia Rendleman)

‘We pick each other up’

Lewis, sitting in his office in Hibbs Hall, discusses the next steps for “Black Men in Medicine.” He wants to convert the group into a student organization this fall.

“I want the students to take leadership of this,” Lewis said. “I want their application to medical school to be enhanced by this experience. Looking at another peer who looks like me who has the same goal, and we can study together, do community service work together, go to medical school open houses together — all of that is important. They can develop that bond.”

Thomas is excited about that idea.

“Although I’m not in medical school yet, I have been taking steps to get into med school and I can help younger students based on my experience,” he said. “They look at me as their role model; I look toward students in the School of Medicine as my role model. We pick each other up.”

The advisers, Lewis said, take a similar approach. He and Goode often refer students to one another. Barnes said she spoke with Lewis and Goode as she was developing a curriculum for her class. Dorman’s course — which helps introduce LGBTQ students to relevant campus and local resources — has doubled in size, she said, from 15 students a year ago to 30 this fall. And 98 percent of students who have taken “Men of Color” have either graduated or are still at VCU and in good academic standing.

It is helpful to have various people working on similar issues, Lewis said. Jackson agrees. She believes the efforts within UAA are making a difference for underrepresented students.

“I think this provides them with the opportunities to say ‘Hey, we matter, our voices should be heard,’” she said. “We hope these classes and groups will be a catalyst for change, not only at VCU but also beyond campus. These underrepresented populations need to know that their ideas, cultures and identities are part of our core values, that they mean something to us."

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