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A group of VCU students and academic advisers have created a way for underrepresented students to overcome barriers as they pursue careers in health care. (Getty Images)

VCU P.R.I.M.E. empowers underrepresented students interested in health care careers

The student- and staff-initiated group identifies traditional barriers and develops strategies to help peers overcome them.

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As a pre-health/STEM academic adviser at Virginia Commonwealth University, William Burke saw a gap between the time students arrived at VCU and when they connected with all the different aspects of pursuing their health care career goals.

He decided an awareness about prerequisites and experiential opportunities needed to start earlier.

Many nonminority students come in with a plan, whether it’s from a sister or an uncle who’s in medicine, or an aunt who is a nurse, Burke said, but, “a lot of our kids from our communities don't have those sorts of resources and don't have that kind of community.”

So last year, Burke brought together many of the students he mentored with pre-health adviser Danielle Stubbs to build an initiative for self-identifying minority students interested in health care careers.

They created VCU P.R.I.M.E., which stands for Pre-health and Related Interest Mentoring Experiences. P.R.I.M.E.’s aim is to ensure that underrepresented students interested in health care are empowered by gaining awareness of different career paths, understanding necessary prerequisites and requirements, connecting to resources on and off campus that provide support and opportunity, and gaining access to advising.

Jordan Matamoro-Mejias, a junior psychology major on the pre-med track in the College of Humanities and Sciences; Riddhi Shah, a junior biology major on the pre-med track; Hala Idris, a junior biology major on the pre-med track; and Anir Ahant, a junior biology major interested in pursuing an M.D.-Ph.D., formed P.R.I.M.E.’s student executive board. 

“One of my main roles as an adviser for P.R.I.M.E. is to make sure that we're developing a self-sustaining model, but also to incorporate community within everything that we do,” Burke said. “That can come in the form of inspiration, or just being able to talk with somebody on campus who has the same goal that you have, that you may not have known and just connecting on that level.” 

Matamoro-Mejias, Shah, Idris and Ahant jumped at the chance to form P.R.I.M.E. because they knew they could make an impact sharing the knowledge that they also sought their first years at VCU while often feeling overwhelmed by their course load and other responsibilities. 

A source of empowerment

Matamoro-Mejias said he didn’t want college students without mentors in the medical field like him to be dissuaded from going into the medical profession or in the dark about the requirements.

“When I met him, Mr. Burke wasn't my adviser at all, but he thankfully took time out of his day to meet with me to tell me exactly what I should be doing and what I had been doing wrong, which I really needed,” said Matamoro-Mejias, who admits he was failing a class at the time. “Other advisers told me, ‘You're not a good enough candidate for medical school. You should probably look to change your trajectory. You're not competitive enough.’

“Mr. Burke was really the first one who put it in a different way and told me that I just had to change my techniques rather than coming towards me and saying ‘this isn't for you.’ That was really eye-opening and motivational because he really put it into sports terms, to stay prepared like before every game you have to stay prepared.” 

To prepare to apply to medical school, Matamoro-Mejias shadows an anesthesiologist, volunteers with organizations that help people who are food insecure and serves in leadership roles in Black Men in Medicine and P.R.I.M.E. to learn about the field and mentor others. He takes Burke’s advice to flip his challenges into strengths, showing he has overcome academic adversity and using resources around him to become a better student. The trajectory of Matamoro-Mejias' GPA completely changed once he met Burke and was connected with resources around campus.

Burke said there is much at stake when these aspiring health professionals do not pursue their dreams because of a lack of confidence or knowledge.

“Numbers of Black and brown health care practitioners isn't rising to the same level as our total population,” Burke said. “We wanted to do what we could in terms of creating a network so that hopefully it's self-sustaining so that students coming in after us have immediate access and connection to resources and information that are absolutely essential and necessary when trying to pursue an endeavor that is so competitive.”

Clockwise from top left: Anir Ahant, Riddhi Shah, Jordan Matamoro-Mejias and Hala Idris.
Clockwise from top left: Anir Ahant, Riddhi Shah, Jordan Matamoro-Mejias and Hala Idris. The four make up VCU P.R.I.M.E.’s student executive board.

Off to a strong start 

An inaugural program in the fall semester with panelists from various medical fields maxed out the number of Zoom participants with breakout rooms for discussions. 

“We had professionals from all of the graduate schools from VCU speak to the students about what it takes to be a competitive applicant and give motivation for the students. So that was a great way to start off or fully introduce P.R.I.M.E.,” Shah said. 

Also in the fall, Ahant organized a summer research and internship workshop.

VCU P.R.I.M.E.’s numbers ballooned quickly to more than 300 students due to the founders’ innovative outreach on social media and a hunger among new students to connect in the isolation created by the COVID-19 pandemic. The group has never completely met in person but has robust programming this spring and an engaged community despite the barriers.

Representatives from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences spoke to the group in February. On March 2, emergency room physician and author Sampson Davis, M.D., gave a talk titled “Dedication, Determination and Discipline.”

Upcoming programming shines a light on the medical school admissions process as well as deeper issues for minorities in the health professions. On March 11 at 6:30 p.m. P.R.I.M.E. will host a Q&A session with VCU School of Medicine students to explain how they got in, why they chose VCU and their experiences thus far. On March 25 at 6:30 p.m., two VCU graduates who are now studying osteopathic medicine will share their experiences with the group. 

Later in the semester, the group will hold networking events that show how students can connect with professors and advisers, and then how to reach out to prospective medical and professional schools to which students may want to apply. 

A connecting force

P.R.I.M.E.’s group chat has become a community for the many members who aspire to work in any health care career — from nurse to dentist, physical therapist to X-Ray technician.

“Undergraduates always have access to all of us, the co-founders and the advisers, through the group chat,” Mahanty said. “That's been a really good space, especially with COVID when it's difficult to get in touch with people and get access to resources. We were able to post some pathways there, and events, as well as support the new students with individual questions.”

Lugene Qawasmi
Lugene Qawasmi

Lugene Qawasmi, a freshman interdisciplinary science major with a concentration in professional science, lives at home in Stafford, Virginia, but relishes her interactions with VCU P.R.I.M.E. 

“Coming into freshman year with COVID, because I'm staying home I felt kind of clueless. I knew walking in I always wanted to go on a pre-medicine track, but I didn't have any mentors and no one around me was in the pre-med track as well. But being in VCU P.R.I.M.E. really helps me to understand why I even wanted to go into the field of medicine to begin with,” Qawasmi said. 

Even while living far from campus and having all asynchronous classes, she feels more knowledgeable and empowered about how to get into medical school. It was also through P.R.I.M.E. that she learned about the interdisciplinary science major, which allows her to explore her love of the humanities as well as health, diseases and immunology.

“When I have questions, the first thing I do is go to that organization because one thing that I really enjoy about P.R.I.M.E. is that everyone is going through the same thing. It's not just pre-medicine students or pre-pharm students but also pre-physician’s assistant students, pre-occupational therapy students and pre-nursing students,” Qawasmi said. “Everyone there is just so welcoming along with the e-board members as well.”

Preparing for the next steps

P.R.I.M.E. founders define the group as a network initiative and not a student organization because they focus on new, transfer and post-baccalaureate students who they hope will latch on to the many science and health student organizations around campus.

“Part of what we wanted to do with P.R.I.M.E. was help students navigate all of the different possible careers within health care and making sure that they're picking a career that's a good fit for them in terms of their quality of life, with their life goals and their particular life skills,” Burke said. “Not just be another organization but an actual instrument, a tool or pipeline for students to transition to the university, to be aware of all the different health care careers … and then connecting them to information and resources that can help them move forward to the student organizations and then hopefully on to professional schools and into licensed practitioners.”

Matamoro-Mejias said a new policy allowing incoming students to meet with a pre-med and pre-health adviser as early as their freshman year is a positive change.

“I tell these kids they're pioneers for their families,” Burke said. “They're breaking new ground. Many don't have family members who have gotten this far in education, or have such high goals within education. We try to foster that pioneering spirit in terms of strengthening them and motivating them and giving them the proper perspective in terms of changing the narrative within their family and creating different options for those who come behind them. 

“To see these students leading other students from where they came from, it's one of the proudest achievements of my professional career, just to see how far they've come, how much more confident and clear they are, that's what P.R.I.M.E. is all about.”