How U of T is increasing the number of black medical school students

In a few weeks, a fresh crop of medical students will begin classes at the University of Toronto.

By this time next year, Aquila Akingbade would like to be one of them.

The aspiring neurosurgeon is in the process of preparing a nerve-racking batch of applications for Canadian medical schools, but thanks to a two-year-old U of T program, he doesn’t have to go it alone.

The Community of Support (CoS), as the program is called, exists to help black, Indigenous and economically disadvantaged students across Canada successfully apply to medical school.

For Akingbade, that’s meant access to mentors and to a current medical school student to help him navigate the process.

“It’s really about levelling the playing field,” said Ike Okafor, who founded the program and works at U of T as the senior officer of service learning and diversity outreach.

Where some prospective applicants might have a network of family friends to call on for advice and connections, “there’s a lot of students who don’t have that same kind of access,” explained Okafor.

U of T medical school had 1 black student last year

In 2016, the University of Toronto had one black medical student in a class of approximately 260.  

“What does that say about where we are in the 21st century in terms of the access issues?” asked Okafor.

Thanks to supports like mentorship programs, a free MCAT preparation course, and mock interviews, the support program is slowly but surely bringing those numbers up.

This year, at least four black students who worked with the program will begin their medical education at U of T, and another 16 will head off to other medical schools in Canada, the U.S. and the Caribbean.

Dr. Onye Nnorom

Dr. Onye Nnorom is the vice-president of the Black Physicians Association of Ontario. The group provides a number of mentors for the Community of Support program. (Dr. Onye Nnorom)

Most medical schools do not publicize the number of black students they have, but Okafor said that it’s likely the number of black students entering medical schools in Ontario without help from the support program is low. 

“I would say that for black students in this province, the majority are coming through CoS at this point,” he said — eight students in total for the coming school year. 

It’s not enough, said Dr. Onye Nnorom, vice-president of the Black Physicians Association of Ontario, a major source of mentors for Community of Support.

“In medicine, we really are supposed to be representing the population that we serve. If you look at Toronto, the black general population is eight per cent,” she said, “It’s been less than that.”

There is something to celebrate, though: “it’s increasing. And we’ve been able to identify what works,” she said.    

Systemic barriers from public school on up

Okafor said that beyond helping students navigate applications, volunteer placements and interviews, there are deeper systemic issues that prevent black students from setting their sights on medical school that the support program wants to address.

“Part of that does come down to low expectations and other factors, anti-black racism that occurs within the [school] system,” he said.

Medical Science Building

The University of Toronto had a single black student in its 2016 medical school class. (Peter Valkov/CBC)

To tackle that, Community of Support is working on adding an outreach program for high school students.

‘If they can do it, you can do it’

Akingbade, who will submit his medical school applications in October, said that seeing and meeting more black doctors could make a big difference to young people.

“Throughout my four years [at U of T] I never had a single black professor,” he said. He was also frequently the only black student in his science classes. 

A program like Community of Support “shows the students that there are actual black professionals, black medical professionals out there,” he said.

“If they can do it, you can do it as well.”

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