Medical schools across the U.S. struggle to enroll black and Hispanic students — but the City University of New York appears to have finally cracked the code to creating an integrated medical school.
Harlem’s CUNY Medical School — founded in 2016 — enrolls five times as many black students and twice as many Hispanic students as the national average.
Just over half of its students — 53% — are black or Hispanic. That’s almost the reverse of the nation’s medical schools as a whole, where roughly three in five students are white.
CUNY officials say they’ve achieved a more diverse student body in large part because the medical schools skips the the standardized MCAT exam used for admissions by nearly every other medical school in the country.
Instead, students are admitted to the school’s innovative, seven-year program as undergraduates on the basis of essays, interviews and other measures.
Interim CUNY Chancellor Vita Rabinowitz said students who are admitted to CUNY Medical School are as talented as any would-be doctors in the nation — and the diversity of the student body reflects CUNY’s underlying philosophy of public service.
“We wanted our students to be from diverse communities and our goal was to train those students to serve undeserved populations — to serve an urban population,” Rabinowitz said.
“Our specialty is the urban primary care practice,” she continued. “It’s not a particularly glamorous or remunerative specialty — but it’s right for us.”
Enrolling students like Gabrielle Cintron keeps the mission in focus.
Cintron, 21, is a first-year student at the school from Far Rockaway, Queens — an economically challenged area that suffered from a lack of accessible medical care when Cintron was growing up there.
Cintron, who is half Puerto Rican and half Guyanese — is going to be the the first doctor in her family.
She feels it’s extremely important to have blacks and Hispanics in the medical field.
“My doctors were all white, Jewish. They didn’t look like me,” she said. “As much as I love them, I can imagine how much of a difference it would’ve made just to have a doctor there who looked like me.”
Though it just officially opened a few years ago and has yet to graduate its first class of physicians, the roots of CUNY Medical school stretch back to the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, when shortages of primary care physicians plagued many urban communities of color.
Located on the City College of New York campus in Morningside Heights, CUNY Medical school began as the Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education, which opened in 1973.
At the time, Sophie Davis was designed explicitly to train physicians to work as primary care doctors in urban centers, City College of New York president Vincent Boudreau explained.
Sophie Davis operated in a partnership model where students were admitted as undergrads and began their medical training at the school but then transferred to partner medical schools for the remainder of their education.
In 2016, CUNY phased out those partnerships and built capacity for a degree-granting medical school, whose first graduates will receive their diplomas in 2020.
Boudreau said the medical school’s acceptance rate of 7% makes it as competitive as the Ivy League.
Its relatively low tuition of about $20,000 per semester for New York residents may make it attractive to many.
Among those are third-year student Danissa Williams, 24, whose parents are Haitian and Guyanese and said she wants to work in a community clinic in with an underserved population.
“I feel like you can relate to a person of color,” said Williams, of Washington Heights. “They know where you’re coming from, the type of cultural situations you’re in that some people won’t understand unless you’re from a similar background.”
Shahid Dodson, 23, is a third-year student from the East New York, Brooklyn, where he said he didn’t see a single African-American doctor growing up.
“I do think there was a significant lack of primary care,” Dodson said.
But when he becomes a doctor, Dodson, who is of Jamaican and Panamanian descent, aims to be a role model.
“It’s so hard for an African-American child to say, ‘Hey, can I become a doctor,’” he said. “If you see somebody who looks like you, you think. ‘If this person could do it, I could do it too.’