Medical Student Mentors Underrepresented Youth Pursuing Careers in Medicine

Daily Point of Light # 6696 Jan 23, 2020

Meet Daily Point of Light Award honoree Julia Xia. Read her story and nominate an outstanding volunteer or family as a Daily Point of Light.

Emory University School of Medicine student Julia Xia has found a way to combine her passion, for both the medical field as well as mentoring youth, through the Young Physician’s Initiative, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that provides guidance to high school and college students pursuing a career in medicine.

Julia is one of the directors for the Young Physician’s Initiative [YPI], which specifically targets youth in underrepresented communities who may not have access to information about the medical field or what it takes to enter it. Medical students visit local high schools and universities on a monthly basis to provide interested students with a curriculum that introduces them to real-life medical cases, as well as resources and mentoring on how to apply to and prepare for medical schools. Julia was drawn to the program by her love of teaching — prior to medical school, she taught English to high school students in Indonesia — as well as her desire to see more diversity in the medical field.

Describe your volunteer role with Young Physician’s Initiative.

I’ve had a couple of different roles with the Young Physician’s Initiative. When I started out, I was working with [YPI Executive Director and Founder Dr. Heval Mohamed Kelli] to start a new branch for YPI at a local high school in Atlanta. It was the North Druid Hills High School. I would go there after school once a month with one other medical student and we would bring a medical case, or we would bring another presentation on what it’s like to apply to medical school. We designed this curriculum throughout the whole year where every month we would bring them something that would give them exposure to what the field of medicine is like, what it takes to get there, to become a doctor. We would also organize some other speaker events with physicians to come and talk about their job. We also tailored it to what students were interested in, whether or not they needed help with anything that they were working on as a college application, or if they had anything they were interested in like a workshop.

I spent the next year expanding YPI to the college level. Previously we had only been doing it in high school, and then we started expanding to colleges in Atlanta. The first college we did was Georgia State. I essentially did the same thing, but I scaled it up to the undergraduate level where I brought more complex medical cases to a group of college students. We would meet in the evenings and go through what it’s like to diagnose a disease and think like a doctor, basically. We also had more advanced workshops for applying to medical schools, like medical student panels where we got a bunch of incoming students to ask questions they had. I designed a medical ethics session for them and I held mock interviews for them to practice their interview skills. Later on in the year, once we got our undergraduate curriculum solidified, we expanded it to other schools like Georgia Tech, Clark Atlanta. That was an exciting expansion for YPI.

This year I am taking a director role, where I’m now training medical students to lead these sessions at their different schools. We have YPI at over ten different high schools and undergraduate campuses in Atlanta. We have a whole team of medical students who are interested in teaching and working with students who are interested in medicine. I hold the training sessions for them. I give them a tour of the curriculum we designed, I give them all the resources we have, I share with them all the things students have really liked in the past. Also in the director role, I will gather data from all of our surveys we have the students take about the curriculum. I submit them to conferences so we can present the work we do at YPI on a national level. We really try to design our curriculum so it’s simple and replicable and easy for other schools to adopt if they want to.

Why did you want to get involved in the Youth Physician’s Initiative?

It’s something I wanted to become involved in because I loved being in the classroom. I was a teacher before I came to medical school so I loved mentorship and teaching in the classroom. I also really admired the vision that YPI had. Our main goal is to bring exposure and mentorship from the medical field to different underrepresented students in local high schools and colleges who might not necessarily know someone in medicine. If you don’t know someone personally who has been through the process, it’s actually really, really hard and difficult to know what you have to do, and what the whole process of applying is, or what the field is about. We wanted to make this more accessible to students who may not have this opportunity otherwise and provide a whole network of mentorship for them to access later on, and also to show them that we are interested in helping them. They really appreciate that medical students, residents and physicians have taken the time to come to their schools and be present in the community and demonstrate interest and an investment in their futures. That’s really mostly why I believe in YPI and why I started with Dr. Kelli.

Why is it important to reach students in these underrepresented communities?

It’s important because historically we do not have enough diversity in medicine. All of these studies in recent years have shown that statistically, the percentage of minority physicians is really, really small. It’s very unfortunate because the patients we see every day are diverse. In order to have physicians who can properly advocate for them, believe in them, invest in them and communicate with them, I think it’s important to have that diversity mirrored in the physician workforce as well. They definitely have done studies where physicians who come from underrepresented communities are more likely to, when they finish their training, practice in these communities and they’re more likely to believe in these communities and advocate for them.

Julia Xia Daily Point of Light Award Honoree
Julia Xia, right, stands with her fellow Young Physician’s Initiative volunteers, including Executive Director and Founder Dr. Heval Mohamed Kelli, second from left./Courtesy Julia Xia

What kind of feedback have you received from the students?

The students really love it. The high school students, they are really just getting the beginnings of an idea of what the field of medicine is like, so for them, it is like we’re busting a lot of myths about the field of medicine — that it’s so hard and difficult of a process to get into and also complete. People think it’s really expensive and inaccessible, people think ‘I’ll never get into medical school,’ that it’s just a distant dream. I think for the high school level, we’re really being there and being present in their classrooms and sharing with them what it really is like day to day to think like a doctor and solve medical cases. It makes it seem a little bit more real and accessible for them. It’s sparking interest for them, so they’ve really enjoyed solving the cases and just getting a taste of that problem-solving investigative thinking that it takes. They really enjoy it when we bring physical exam tools like stethoscopes or reflex hammers and let them try out what it feels like to do a physical exam. We answer a lot of their questions about what do I have to do in college to get ready for medical school, and what are the realities of applying to a field that seems to be competitive but really, with the right guidance, is very doable. It’s piquing their interest and they’re getting excited about it.

Then at the college level, the students really already have an idea that they’re interested in medicine. A lot of them are already pursuing the pre-med track, so they just have a lot of practical questions about what it takes to complete the application cycle. Having this direct mentorship for them, it’s really valuable because they’re actually in the process of preparing themselves for the next step in their careers. They really know a lot more at the college level, to where they can dive into these cases. I think it’s exciting for them to be able to apply what they’re learning in college to real-life patients, and those are the kinds of cases we bring. I’ve been getting a lot of students who will stay after the workshops with additional questions. A lot of them will reach out. We’ll always give them our emails and they’ll ask us questions about personal things they’re wondering about. I think they appreciate having individual medical students or physicians that they can reach out to and connect with.

Are there any future partnerships, programs, or events that you are excited about?

We’re constantly excited about expanding to new schools. Each year, we’ve expanded to new campuses and new schools in the community. That’s always a thing we’re really, really happy about. We’ve also been organizing an annual conference called ‘Doctor for a Day,’ which we’re all really excited about. It’s basically a very expanded, large-scale, full-day conference where we’re doing a lot of the same things, but we make it available to anyone in the community who wants to come. We were getting a lot of interest from students who did not necessarily have YPI established at their school but still wanted something like it, so we designed this one-day conference on a Saturday called Doctor for a Day, where we brought in a whole network of physicians. We have a networking lunch and we also have medical cases for them to go through. We have similar-to-normal-YPI curriculum, we have a medical student panel, we have physician speakers. We’ve been able to expand and make this accessible to people who don’t necessarily have YPI at their schools. Last year was the first time we tried it and it was a really great success. A lot of participants really loved it so we’re doing it again this year in February.

What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?

I’ve learned that these students are by far the most motivated and energetic students I’ve ever worked with. I think that students from underrepresented schools do not lack anything like inspiration and motivation. What they really just need is to be put in touch with the right resources. I think that’s something YPI is able to provide — putting them in touch with mentors and resources, pointing them in the right direction. It’s not telling them what to do with their lives, and it’s not telling them what they should or shouldn’t choose for their career. It’s just showing them what the options are and that they are more than capable of pursuing it themselves. I’ve definitely seen how driven they are and it’s very rewarding.

What do you want people to learn from your story?

It truly matters when you invest in A, the youth and the young student population of our generation, and then B, underrepresented schools that don’t necessarily have the same resources and connections that other places do. That’s one thing that I think is so enriching about this program. The success of these students — and we are tracking where they go after they graduate, and hearing their success stories and seeing how they progress — has just showed me how it is so, so important and so worthwhile to invest time and energy in young students, especially from those in minority backgrounds who do have the interest and are driven to pursue careers, in medicine for example, and just may not know the path to take.

Is there anything else you think is important for people to know about Youth Physician Initiative?

I think it’s important to acknowledge all the mentors and teammates that I have in YPI. I want to acknowledge Dr. Kelli, who is the founder of YPI. He’s been my mentor in this entire over-three-year process of working on and building YPI. I want to acknowledge the 15 to 20 other medical students who are doing this YPI initiative with me. Everyone is committed to their sites and their schools and YPI wouldn’t be able to have it without them putting their time into it.

Do you want to make a difference in your community like Julia? Find local volunteer opportunities.

Morganne Mallon