By Vanessa Bonneau

When Salima Ramdani was still in high school she came to McGill for a few days to get an idea of what health professionals do.

“The camp changed my future,” she says. “I learned about the different health programs and exchanged ideas with counsellors. Seeing a diverse volunteer team, I could picture myself here.”

Today she is a medical student at McGill, where she makes time in her busy schedule to inspire the next generation of students.

Across Canada and beyond, post-secondary institutions are focused on promoting diversity, inclusion and equity. McGill is no exception.

Students like Ramdani in the Faculty of Medicine and the Faculty of Dentistry are playing a crucial role in efforts to have a more representative student body in McGill’s health professional programs.

Over the past 10 years, to better understand who is enrolling in its undergraduate medical education program, the Faculty of Medicine has been surveying incoming students. Since 2017, the questionnaires are also given to new students in other health professional programs, including dentistry, nursing, physiotherapy, occupational therapy and speech-language pathology.

Results showed that Indigenous and Black students were underrepresented in McGill’s health programs, as were students from low-income families and rural areas with small populations.

McGill has taken steps to remedy the imbalance, but the work continues, especially since the Faculty of Medicine has set higher diversity targets starting in 2022.

Students for change

Ramdani and fellow students are themselves tackling underrepresentation.

Three McGill student-run programs reach out to younger students, most of whom are still in high school, offering mentorship and hands-on experiences of various health professions.

The programs are affiliated with the Faculty of Medicine’s Social Accountability and Community Engagement Office, and its Widening Participation Committee, which is concerned with increasing diversity, equity and inclusiveness in the Faculty.

Dr. Nicole Li-Jessen, chair of the Widening Participation Committee, emphasizes how important the students are to the Committee’s work.

“They are so passionate and motivated,” says Dr. Li-Jessen, who is also an assistant professor in the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders. “They bring the student point of view so we can tailor our efforts. As professors, we can be quite idealistic and removed. They provide perspective, impressions, feelings – what the students really need. Their interaction with the generation below them is very useful for shaping the program.”

“The students are our greatest ambassadors,” agrees Dr. Saleem Razack, Director of the Faculty of Medicine’s Social Accountability and Community Engagement Office and a professor of Pediatrics at McGill. “What we do is provide the scaffolding. That’s how we work together. The students are nearer to these younger students we’re trying to attract. They’re really in the best place to help us with recruitment.”

Hands-on experience

Each summer McGill’s Explore! Careers in Healthhosts high school students from low socioeconomic schools to get a hands-on experience of what different health professionals do day-to-day.

Explore! began as an afternoon event but has become a two-night, three-day summer camp. With a nine-student executive, current co-presidents and medical students Jessica Hier and Salima Ramdani have ambitious goals for the initiative.

Explore! is planning to add a follow-up event in the fall, focused on making participants competitive applicants to health professional programs. They’re also working to establish a mentorship program that would match each high school student from the summer camp with a student in a healthcare profession program at McGill, as well as a newsletter to engage parents.

“Going to the (Explore!) camp made me realize this could be my reality,” says Ramdani, now in her second year of medical school. She’s passionate about sharing what a career as a health professional can give students.

“They have the power to do great things, in the health care field and beyond. We’re showing them the different ways they could do so,” she says.

“This is something I can do too”

A second program, Health Outreach Projects (HOP), sends McGill student volunteers to school career days around Montreal, and organizes Health Professional for a Day events.

“As a student, as a young kid, you go to the doctor, you want to see someone who’s like you,” says Maria Gueorguieva, who is co-president of HOP with fellow Dentistry student Jiayi Li. The co-presidents and their executive are planning many of the same expansions as Explore!

Li became especially interested in diversity when she learned from a research project that while there are more women graduating from dental schools, it will take more time for those women to reach leadership roles in areas such as universities and professional associations.

“More women in dentistry, more people from different backgrounds, will encourage more people to say, ‘This is something I can do too,’” says Li.

The importance of support

The newest initiative, Supporting Young Black Students (SYBS), works with community groups to provide mentors to local high school students, and hosts popular community events.

When SYBS co-founders Lashanda Skerritt and Clement Bélanger Bishinga arrived at McGill, they started thinking and talking about how it was they had come to McGill’s Faculty of Medicine.

“I was realizing that if you don’t have the support, it’s really difficult to see yourself in the program, and to make yourself competitive for a program that’s really difficult to get into,” says Skerritt.

SYBS provides that kind of support through its mentorship program, community events and discussion panels. As part of the mentorship program, mentees attend regular workshops to gain exposure to clinical skills.

From the start, SYBS has worked with community groups in Montreal, including the Jamaica Association of Montreal and Montreal Community Cares Foundation, which have experience mentoring young people as well as connections to students who may benefit from a mentorship program like SYBS.

Last fall SYBS held an event with black health professionals.

“We did touch on underrepresentation, barriers, racism and systemic problems, but there was also a positive message – if you’re interested in helping people, doing social justice work and caring for patients, you can find a rewarding career in health care,” says Skerritt.

Diversity in experience

“Part of the work we’re doing is to be more conscious about the fact that there are a lot of different types of experiences that we don’t look at the same way,” says Skerritt.

She points out that not everyone can afford to participate in the activities that are popular for students applying to competitive health programs, like going abroad to work with disadvantaged populations, which in many cases is voluntary.

HOP, Explore! and SYBS are looking at other ways for young people to have the kind of experiences valued by an admissions office – perhaps through a shadowing program, where teenagers will work alongside a health student or professional.

“We’re trying to have important conversations about other ways people might show how they’re engaged in their community,” says Skerritt.

Widening participation, measuring impact

The Faculty of Medicine’s Widening Participation Committee is launching a longitudinal study to measure the impact of these student-run programs.

A new questionnaire will gather data on how participation in these programs increases interest in a health profession, and to what extent that translates into application and admission, at McGill or elsewhere.

The goal is to pilot the study with this summer’s Explore! Careers in Health camp cohort.

“We know from our surveys that we have students from underrepresented groups who participated in our programs,” says Dr. Razack. “The pathway programs are working, but we want more details.”

The students are keen to work on the longitudinal study. “We want to see what the impact is,” says HOP’s co-president Gueorguieva. “We enjoy doing this, but we want to make the most of our time and efforts.”

June 13 2019