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University prepares black students for med school


Kenneth J. Cooper

Nationally, the University of Florida in Gainesville is known for producing professional football players like Tim Tebow and Emmitt Smith.

But the state flagship educational institution is actually better at preparing black students for careers in medicine. Last season, 35 former students of all races and ages played in the National Football League; more black graduates, 41, finished medical school in the last two years alone.

“I think it reflects just a strong commitment of the undergraduate admissions process in actively recruiting academically highly-qualified individuals from various ethnic and racial groups, and that there’s a large population of both African American and Hispanic individuals in the state of Florida,” said Dr. Joseph Fantone, senior associate dean for educational affairs at the College of Medicine.

In Florida, which is 16 percent black, and the Southeast, the university already has a reputation beyond football. For a decade, about 40 percent of freshmen have declared an interest in medicine or another health profession, according to Albert Metheny, director of academic advising in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“You almost get the sense that we’ve been identified as the place you go to get into med school or one of the health professions,” Metheny said.

A combination of factors fuels Florida’s success in preparing black students to make the intense slog through medical school.

Campus administrators confirmed the presence of the factors that Marc Nivet, chief diversity officer at the Association of American Medical Colleges, cites as common to schools that see many black graduates become doctors: Effective pre-health advising of undergraduates, a large enrollment, rigorous curriculum, a medical school, an active Student National Medical Association chapter and a reputation for graduates entering health professions.

Florida broke into the top 10 as number nine in 2009, dipped to 10th the next year and then leapt to third in 2011, the latest year statistics are available from the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Nivet, using shorthand for historically black colleges and universities, says the types of schools that comprise that list have been consistent over the years.

“You’ve got your HBCUs. Xavier [University in New Orleans] has been leading the pack for a good 20 years, if not more,” Nivet said. “Then you’ve got your Ivy League schools. Once African American students or any underrepresented minorities get into those institutions with aspirations for medicine or any health professional school, they tend to get in. They’ve dealt with the sort of competitive, academic, rigorous curriculum, and so they become competitive applicants for medical school.”

State flagship universities also tend to be top producers of black undergraduates who become doctors. “It’s sort of a volume thing” because flagships have such large enrollments, Nivet said.

Florida has an undergraduate enrollment of about 33,000. Two other large state flagships, the University of Michigan and University of North Carolina, tied for ninth in 2011 in the number of black alumni receiving medical degrees.

With so many other state flagships having big enrollments, more than size distinguishes Florida’s pre-med preparation of African American students.

“I think the pre-health adviser is a critical component to the kinds of numbers you see there,” Nivet says of the top ten schools in general. “It’s coequal with having a rigorous curriculum. You have to have someone who can help them navigate, especially our underrepresented minority students. The vast majority do not have parents or relatives who are physicians who can help guide them through the application process.”

Florida has three pre-health advisers for undergraduates, led since 2008 by Bobbi Knickerbocker, who was a nurse for nearly 40 years.

The advising starts at freshman orientation and continues through a student’s application to medical school. If minority students want additional support, Knickerbocker refers them to Parker and her staff at the medical school.

“She has really made a difference,” Parker, also an assistant professor of pediatrics, said of Knickerbocker. “I think that in order to be a mentor or a good adviser, you have to believe in the abilities of the person, and I think that is what comes through. She does believe in the students.”

Knickerbocker and her colleagues tailor their advising to each pre-med student, including those who do not take the traditional major in biology. Those students include music, business and journalism majors.

“We’re trying to work with students as individuals based on their interests, what their goals are and what their academic interests are,” Knickerbocker said. “We’re very highly individualized.”

Among the top 10 undergraduate producers of black medical school graduates in 2011, all but Xavier and Spelman College in Atlanta, ranked eighth, have a medical school. Nivet said that provides important opportunities for pre-med students to shadow doctors and gain research experience.

The medical school also has a chapter of the Student National Medical Association whose members mentor black undergraduates.

The University of Florida is likely to maintain a place among leading producers of black undergraduates who become doctors for at least four years.

Since 2007, the school has averaged almost 60 black applicants to med school, and 42 percent have won admission, according to Knickerbocker. This year the number of applicants is increasing significantly.

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