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This summer, the UW Schools of Medicine, Dentistry and Public Health will welcome 80 undergraduate students from underrepresented or disadvantaged backgrounds to the Summer Health Professions Education Program (SHPEP).

Dr. Leo Morales, UW School of Medicine chief diversity officer and faculty lead for SHPEP, says that the students describe the program as life-changing: “For many students from underrepresented backgrounds, it’s the first time they are in a classroom with students like themselves … and that’s powerful. There is a lot of bonding that happens and a lot of support that people find there.”

Sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, SHPEP is a six-week, in residence program that seeks to increase diversity in the health professions. The UW was one of the original sites when the medicine pathway began in 1989 and was a pilot site for the expansion of the national program to dentistry (2006) and to public health and other health professions (2016).

Students are admitted to the program following their freshman or sophomore year at  colleges or community colleges across the region. The core curriculum is the same for all three pathways with a focus on academic enrichment through courses in chemistry, biology, biostatistics and population health. Students also have the opportunity to observe health professionals in their work environments through shadowing experiences.

Odia Kane
“My personal takeaway is having these constant affirmations of my career goals and my personal aspirations because I want to be an epidemiologist in the future and then eventually go into health policy. And I’ve been told time and time again, even indirectly from speakers that would come in, that I have a lot of value, and I have a lot to offer to the world.”
SHPEP student from New Haven, Conn., and participant in the 2017 public health pathway.

According to Morales, SHPEP is the UW’s signature program for attracting students from diverse backgrounds to careers in the health professions. He says that one measure of success is that about 35% of the students in the medicine pathway have been accepted to medical schools.

“The program supports students who aren’t from privileged backgrounds,” adds Dr. Douglass Jackson, UW professor of dentistry. “Whereas in the past prestigious schools kept disadvantaged students out, the program attempts to bring them into the health professions.”

This summer, the program’s 80 participants will represent the following racial and ethnic groups: African American/Black (24 students), Hispanic (24), Asian (10), Native American (8), White (6), Pacific Islander (1), and Unknown or Other (7).

One cause for concern, however, is that men of color are only 20% of the UW students and about 30% of SHPEP students nationally. Dr. Sara Mackenzie, UW senior lecturer in health services and faculty lead for the public health pathway, says that the “lack of men of color is an example of the structural racism that the program is meant to address.” Recruitment efforts are a high priority at both the local and national levels to increase their participation rates.

Jackson has taught in the program since 2003. He says that the opportunity to meet the students where they are keeps him coming back. “Even though they may have come from disadvantaged backgrounds, they haven’t lost their focus on what they want to be. It’s a testament to their resilience,” he says.

Mackenzie is also impressed by the students. “They are so passionate,” she says. “It’s exciting to be in a room with students from diverse backgrounds and hear them talk to each other. They are the future leaders, who can hopefully make changes.”


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