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How Creighton is inspiring underrepresented kids to head to med school

Nov 15, 2021
5 min Read
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Mini Med School

Physicians don’t happen by themselves.

Behind the white coat and match day ceremonies of future decades will lie years of encouragement, planning, parental support and good old-fashioned positive thinking, all of which occurred Nov. 6 at the Creighton Cardiac Center.

The stars of the show were some 20 middle-school girls identified by their Catholic schools and by Creighton University as potential physicians or other health care professionals. Accompanied by their parents, and encouraged by a presentation from Ronn Johnson, PhD, ABPP, associate dean for diversity and inclusion at Creighton and a professor in the Department of Psychiatry, the girls discovered what life looks like inside a Mini-Medical School.

“Mini-Medical School” is the name of a two-year-old Creighton University School of Medicine program that paves the path to a medical or health-sciences education for first-generation and underrepresented middle school children. The program, which was held virtually last year, is an important part of the University’s commitment to helping underrepresented communities understand that the rewards and responsibilities of a medical or health sciences career are within reach.

“Fifty percent of the students in Creighton’s medical school have one parent who is a physician,” Johnson says. “The children we are reaching out to come from disadvantaged backgrounds. They are first-generation students and underserved students. The likelihood of them having a parent who is a physician, or even who has a college education, is extremely rare.”

Consequently, he says, the road to a college education is often not familiar to parents and students, who need help navigating the process and the pitfalls.

“You've got to have a lot of those science courses, and you've got to start taking them when you’re in your freshman or sophomore year (of high school),” he says he tells the students. “If you haven't started out in high school taking those courses, you are going to be at a major disadvantage going into college.”

The Mini-Medical School is what Creighton terms a “pipeline” program, which identifies the brightest and most talented students early and guides them through middle school and high school with their progress tracked both by the school and by Creighton. Johnson says Creighton currently partners with about nine schools.

Alex Paul, a refugee from South Sudan, has two daughters participating in the Mini-Medical School.

“This program is really fantastic,” he says. “People know very little about medical school. They think mostly about brain surgeons or pediatricians, things like that. Most of the parents there didn’t know that there are many fields of study, and many careers, that their children could follow.

“I talked to a couple of the students just to find their opinions about the program, and they were very excited. Some said they wanted to be a neurosurgeon, others a chiropractor — anything. As a parent, I was very happy to see these options opening up.”

The mini-schools, Johnson says, employ tried-and-true evidenced-based strategies that are culturally responsive.

The School of Medicine maintains 16 such Mini-Medical School pipeline programs for children and their parents, among which are mini-schools for young diverse women in medicine, immigrants, residents of rural areas, elementary school children, Native Americans and high school students.

Sometimes, the presentation is made in Spanish, sometimes, as in the case of the Nov. 6 event, to a single gender. In all cases, the goal is to inspire interest in medicine and health.

“We have tons of experiments that we run with the kids in the cardiac center,” Johnson says. “We expose them to the human body, we show them how to do physicals, how to take a temperature, how to do reflux tests. We stick balloons in one of those plastic liter bottles to show them how the lungs work.

“The big thing is to motivate them to think, ‘Hey, you could become a doctor. Have you ever thought about that?’ It plants the seed in their heads early on.”

Johnson says he knows that not all the students embraced by the program will pursue a medical or health-sciences career. But, he said, he is certain of one thing.

“We just have some stars in this program,” he says. “You can just tell by the way they engage with the environment that these kids are going somewhere. They might not become doctors, but they are definitely going to be successful.”