Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.
The University of Richmond continues to be the best decision I have made in my journey to becoming a physician. By the age of three, I knew I wanted to be a doctor because I loved to fix things. My early memories involved helping my dad while he fixed cars. My father is a brilliant senior mechanical engineer and my mother an astute accountant. Their strong work ethic and support of one another served as strong role models to me in my formative years in Loudoun County, Virginia. It was second nature to push myself academically and to make the most of the opportunities afforded me. Growing up with a younger sibling with autism was also an incredibly formative part of my childhood as it taught me to be empathetic and to see the world from other people's perspectives. My father always reminded me that in life our success is tied to our interactions with others: “people remember how you make them feel,” I used this as my mantra in my pursuit of becoming a doctor.
The University of Richmond had the perfect balance of challenge academically and support to help me bring my dream to fruition. As a Richmond Scholar of the Boatwright and Oliver Hill designation, mentorship was a guaranteed part of the program. These were special mentors who took a special interest in helping students succeed. Without realizing it, I had acquired many different types of mentors and they all helped foster growth in different areas of my life.
Dr. April Hill, former professor of biology and Clarence Doonan professor of science, was a mainstay from early on in my time at Richmond. Not only was she my adviser, she gave me the unique opportunity to work in her lab. I am forever grateful because learning how to be a great scientist informed my medical training. Working in Dr. Hill’s lab led to my first publication in a major scholarly journal and the rigors of four years of benchwork research under her guidance helped prepare me for medical school.
Dr. Tinina Cade, associate vice president of student development: multicultural affairs, was an essential personal mentor. Being an Oliver Hill Scholar meant the world to me. Named for the lawyer who fought to reopen public schools in Prince Edward County, Virginia, Mr. Hill’s work became support for Brown v. Board of Education that led to the Supreme Court’s declaring a “separate but equal” doctrine unconstitutional. This resonated with me because my mother grew up in that same county that he represented during the era of segregation. Dr. Cade made sure we all knew of his important legacy but more importantly imparted the necessity of carrying social justice in any profession we entered. I began to actively learn about how social determinants of health affect all Americans but in particular, minority and underserved populations. I wanted to use this understanding to shape the physician I hoped to be.
Every bit as exceptional and in unique ways were Dr. John Vaughan, director of pre-health education, a professional mentor; Dr. Bertram Ashe, professor of English and American studies, a cultural mentor; the late Dr. Bill Myers, professor of chemistry, a mentor who believed in me from my beginnings as a science student; and many other professors in the school of business. Make no mistake, to do well I had to put in the hard work necessary to succeed as a science major as well as incorporate my interests in business with a minor. These individuals and others at Richmond showed me how connections with those who have walked the path before us can help shape our own journey.
Before leaving Richmond, I was able to foster one more mentorship that was essential to my success in medical school: first lady, our presidential spouse and cross-cultural mentor, Dr. Betty Neal Crutcher. A powerhouse in the health sciences in her own right, I was excited for the opportunity but in all honesty, I could not imagine how important Dr. Crutcher would become. After being accepted to medical school, I would work harder than I ever had before and finding the right mentors required a more nuanced approach—they were not guaranteed. First-year brought challenges and required adjustments. Sometimes those tasked with advising students were not always encouraging or could be negative. Having Dr. Crutcher talk about certain challenges was helpful as it made me realize I was not the first one to go through it nor was I alone.
When pursuing medicine, you will face obstacles and be forced to push past failures and fears. Often with the wrong advice, students can be steered toward a specialty that will tolerate them rather than the specialty they truly love. Having the right person in your corner is invaluable because they can show you the light at the end of the tunnel, even before you can see it. That is what working on my mentorship with Dr. Crutcher was like. I still learned the material, learned how to care for patients, and studied for test after test, but that bit of hope and her encouragement made the difference in keeping me going.
We had a phone conversation once a month. Regardless of the city or country she was in, Dr. Crutcher made time for our calls. Making time expressed that she valued the relationship. I valued it as well and made sure to respect her time. I recorded takeaways from each call and sent it as a re-cap to her before our next meeting, so we never lost time catching up from what we last discussed. This structure aided in making this mentorship successful because it ensured that neither the mentor nor mentee was burdened with too much of a load. And by reflecting on what was discussed, it allowed us to see growth and progression.
At first, the mentorship was professional but over time it became personal as we learned more about each other’s backgrounds and families. She taught me the “3 V’s”: values, virtues and vision. These are components of mentorship that she has written extensively about. We were testing this theory in our interactions and seeing its benefits.
Cross-cultural mentoring is another element she discusses in her writings on mentorship. As a black woman interested in pursuing surgery, I knew I could not assume that I would find only mentors who looked like me, and I also did not want only mentors who looked like me as I would treat a diverse population of people. Black and African-American physicians comprise just 4% of the physician workforce in the United States. Black women make up less than 2% of the American physician workforce. But in seeking to treat a diverse population, it was important to find mentors from as many backgrounds as possible. As matriculation rates for African-Americans into medical school have remained stagnant and even declined, it became important to research factors at play in this underrepresentation in medicine-- and to help change it.
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Medical school is a balance of ability and opportunity. Many aspire to go, but very few get the opportunity. Staying in medical school requires learning to study efficiently and having mentors along the way to help student doctors navigate future situations. With my own experience as an underrepresented minority in medicine and in the research, the recurring component was not ability or financial but was access to mentorship. Finding mentors continued to be a hurdle for underrepresented minority students as it requires both sides to be invested. Whether they were of the same culture or not, having at least one mentor-mentee relationship where both parties saw value, virtue and vision was instrumental in my success to graduation.
With time, I would make my own cross-cultural mentorships with many doctors including deans and my future program director. The path to my M.D. was truly earned through tenacity, hard work, and gratitude. My family, Dr. Crutcher and other mentors helped to remind me of my potential and that support inspired me to never give up.
Contact alumna Leslie Mark at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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