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Pictured above: At left, Afkera Daniel (Metro Atlanta ’11), a first-year medical student at Johns Hopkins and one of MERIT’s 200-plus volunteers, teaches CPR to sophomores Kayhla Logan (in white), Jordan Schlereth, and Julius Jingles. [Photograph by Jen Rynda]
On a bright and breezy Saturday morning, 18 juniors and seniors in high school sat in a classroom at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, studying maps of Baltimore’s sexually transmitted infection rates. The highest proportion of new infections is among the city’s 15-to-24-year-olds. The seniors were devising a more student-friendly sex education curriculum to help bring the rate down.
The students are members of MERIT—Medical Education Resources Initiative for Teens—an alumni-founded program aimed at preparing more of Baltimore’s low-income students for careers in medicine and health care. Starting as sophomores, MERIT students begin classwork ranging from science enrichment to leadership training. They attend weekly Saturday sessions where they analyze health disparities by race and income. As juniors, they focus on high-level biology courses and intensive SAT prep. As seniors, they develop health-related community service projects. Throughout, they work with volunteer mentors who serve as role models and guides to college admissions, financial aid, and the transition to a university setting. During summers, they intern in hospitals and laboratories.
Beating the Odds
MERIT students will be exactly the people most needed in our hospitals and clinics, says Tyler Mains (Baltimore ’09), a medical student at Johns Hopkins and one of MERIT’s founders, along with Mark Wilcox (Baltimore ’09), a fellow medical student, and Shyam Gadwal (Houston ’06), a Teach For America staff member. But they’ll need to beat the statistics to get there: Of the nation’s medical students, only 6 percent are African American and only 4 percent are Hispanic. Fewer than 6 percent of medical students come from America’s lowest income quartile.
Mains, who is taking a yearlong sabbatical to focus on expanding MERIT, imagines a Baltimore where students are in class and ready to learn because their health needs are met. “And when a health situation arises, the student can walk down the street to a clinic where someone from the community will be in charge,” he says. When doctors are outsiders, trust is harder to come by. In many underserved communities, Mains says, “people just don’t think the doctor is really trying to care for them.”
MERIT students go through a rigorous application process to ensure their fit for the program. Essays and letters of recommendation are followed by a three-week Saturday-session tryout. This year, 80 students applied for 20 slots.
Taylor Holmes, a MERIT student and a senior at Vivian T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy, plans to return to Baltimore after college to become a physician’s assistant concentrating on neurology. “I’m from here and I want to see my city do better,” she says. “I don’t want to be just a doctor—I want my patients to be able to trust me.”
A Healthy Prognosis
Classes and mentoring have been led by more than 200 volunteers since the program started in 2011. Some are fellow medical school students, and others are Teach For America corps members and alumni. For the past two years, each of MERIT’s seniors—14 in total—earned acceptance into a four-year university. On average, students raised their SAT score 336 points as juniors.
In the coming year, two full-time staff will join the program, allowing the number of incoming students to double to 40 and the mentorship component to extend into college. The founders are also in talks with the Association of American Medical Colleges to expand the MERIT model to five new cities.
Pereviva Besong, who was a student in MERIT’s first cohort, is now a junior at McDaniel College double-majoring in psychology and French while working at a home for autistic children. She credits one of her MERIT internships with exposing her to clinical psychiatry, the field she now hopes to enter. “Without MERIT,” she says, “I wouldn’t have realized what I want to do.”
Excerpted from the Spring 2015 issue of One Day magazine