Skip to Main Content

High School Students Encouraged to Explore Possibilities During YSM Visit

February 28, 2024
by Abigail Roth

With so many smart people surrounding you, what is the most important thing you can do in your first year of school to adjust and not get overwhelmed?

What type of obstacles did you face as a Black woman in medicine and how did you get over them?

These were among the many questions high school students from New Haven (Wilbur L. Cross and James Hillhouse High Schools), Bridgeport (Great Oaks Charter School), and the Guilford A Better Chance Program asked on February 9, as part of a visit to Yale School of Medicine (YSM) organized by the medical school’s Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (ODEI).

Marietta Vázquez, MD, YSM associate dean for medical student diversity and professor of pediatrics, explained, “For me, the goal was to find activities that could inspire students to pursue careers in the health care field, and to demystify the process of going from high school to career-specific training.” To this end, she said, “We put together a panel of current and recent students who have successfully navigated this path and who could motivate and instill hope and determination in high schoolers.”

The panelists included: Beatriz (Betty) Duran-Becerra, MPH ’22, project manager, SASH Lab; Chinye Ijeli, fourth-year MD student; Anthony Muchiri, first-year Physician Associate student; Yanixa Quiñones-Aviles, PhD candidate, Genetics; and Sahony Ramirez, RN, Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital.

Think about possibilities

In welcoming the students, Vazquez shared her own story of growing up in Puerto Rico, the daughter of Cuban refugees. She never had thought a school like Yale was for her until a Yale student, whom she could identify with, visited her high school to encourage students to think about applying. This planted a seed in her mind that maybe she could attend Yale. She encouraged the students similarly to “think about possibilities.”

Karina González Herrera, PhD, YSM associate dean of diversity & inclusion programs, told the students, “What I see in front of me is the future leaders in STEM,” adding to the spirit of possibility.

A key message underlying the day was that it was not a one-time event. Ijeli told a high school student asking for advice about becoming a doctor to find role models from similar backgrounds who are on that path and can provide career advice and remind them it is possible, adding, “I can give you my email.” Similarly, Gonzalez told the students, “Please ask us and others questions during your visit today. Use us as a resource. You have us here today and in the future as mentors, and we look forward to staying in contact with you.”

In introducing themselves, the panelists shared their paths, including coming to the U.S. in high school and not speaking English, not knowing what public health is or what a PA does until fairly recently, being told by a pre-med advisor not to apply to Yale, and almost not applying to Yale, figuring there is no way they would get in.

Nonstop energetic questioning

Immediately after the introductions, the high school students began energetically asking questions, which continued nonstop throughout the session. The panelists tag-teamed with thoughtful responses.

How not to get overwhelmed by the smart people around you? Ijeli encouraged the students to figure out their support systems, which can include family, school counselors, friends, and student groups, and shared that it is important to find people like you whom you can be yourself around. And, she reminded the inquiring student, “You are smart.”

Quiñones-Aviles emphasized that “this is your journey and you are working toward what you want to do in the future,” so do not compare yourself to others, but just work toward your goals. She said she initially struggled to “catch up with where others were at,” but then realized there is no linear path and people will be in different stages. “We all have our unique strengths which we can leverage, so remember to be compassionate toward yourself.” Duran-Becerra shared that getting engaged in activities, such as volunteering and finding other communities off campus, away from the stress of people focused solely on grades, helped her put things into perspective in college.

Responding to the question about the obstacles for a Black woman in medical school, Ijeli focused first on the financial obstacles of applying to medical school for anyone who is low-income, such as the cost of the MCAT. (In her introductory remarks, Ijeli spoke of the importance of looking for financial aid to support one’s goals.) Another challenge is imposter syndrome—feeling like she has to be the best or she does not deserve to be in medical school or get a scholarship. Ijeli said support from people in YSM’s Diversity, Inclusion, Community Engagement, and Equity (DICE) Office has helped her deal with this challenge, as has mentoring others, which reduces her own anxiety.

Ijeli also pointed to stereotype threat—worrying that people will expect her to perform poorly, which exacerbates stress and risks worsening performance. Her advice for countering it: “Set your goals and always pursue your dreams. Don’t let anyone create doubt.” Additionally, Ijeli spoke about logistical challenges, such as how to find a cap during surgical rotations that would fit over her afro, and turning to older students for advice.

The high school students asked many practical questions, such as what the panelists would have done differently in high school, study tips, and when to start studying for the MCAT. Ijeli advised that the MCAT is a good tool for someone from a disadvantaged background to show they have the ability to do well, and encouraged starting to study in one’s sophomore or junior year of college. She added that if students are studying for their science classes, that is good preparation for the MCAT.

Opportunities for high school students

After the student panel, Linda Jackson, YSM’s DICE director, and Yanice Méndez-Fernández, PhD, MPH, associate dean, assistant professor of population health and leadership, University of New Haven, presented information about opportunities for high school students, such as various Yale Public School Partnership Programs, including free summer STEM programs. The students also toured the Cushing Center in the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library.

In addition to González Herrera, Jackson, and Vazquez, YSM Deputy Dean and Chief Diversity Officer Darin Latimore, MD, along with Eduardo Reyes and Alondra Martinez from ODEI, developed and organized the visit.

Submitted by Abigail Roth on February 28, 2024