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YSM offers a leg up to students aspiring to medical careers

Shermaine Hutchins
Photo by John Curtis
Shermaine Hutchins

At the age of 42, Shermaine Hutchins has more life experiences under his belt than many of his classmates at the School of Public Health. He was raised in Daytona Beach, Florida, by a single mother who provided for him and his younger brother with her wages as an aide in a retirement home. He graduated from high school in 1993, unsure of his path in life, and climbed up the ladder at McDonald’s from “fries to manager.” In 1998, he joined the Army, trained as a medic, and served on a humanitarian mission in Nicaragua, where he cared for his fellow troops and local villagers.

He mustered out in 2002, still not knowing where life would take him. A chance encounter in a mall led to a job as a DJ at a radio station that played rhythm and blues and hip-hop. Again, he rose up the ladder, continuing as an on-air personality while taking on behind-the-scenes roles in management and production. His career took him to Ohio, where he saw the writing on the wall for “terrestrial” radio. Spotify, MP3 players, and streaming services were changing how people listen to music and challenging radio’s business model. In search of a more secure livelihood, Hutchins thought back to his time as a medic and decided to become a nurse. He began taking pre-med courses at Owens Community College in Toledo.

Then, two things happened. He decided he’d rather be in health care management than in clinical care. And he was accepted into Yale’s Summer Medical and Dental Education Program (SMDEP). Yale, along with other schools, had offered the program, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, since 1997 to help college students from disadvantaged backgrounds learn how to navigate the med school application process and teach them basic science knowledge and communications skills.

In 2013, Hutchins was one of 80 students from around the country who came to Yale for the six-week residential program. He arrived with some trepidation. Ivy Leaguers, he was sure, would be rich stuck-up snobs. “I had all those preconceptions,” he said. Instead, he found an accepting and welcoming environment filled with “regular people who just happened to be at Yale.”

At summer’s end, he returned to Toledo with not just new skills but also a new dream. He would study at an Ivy League school.

“Everybody told me I was crazy,” Hutchins said. “All I kept hearing was, ‘You can’t do that.’ ”

He graduated from Bowling Green State University in 2016 and that fall matriculated at the School of Public Health, where he’s on track to graduate with a degree in health management in May 2018. This year, his second in the program and he’s the 2017 Cornell Scott Scholar, an honor awarded each year by the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven to a Yale public health student who demonstrates a commitment to community-based health care.

“I wouldn’t be here without SMDEP,” Hutchins said. But the program is no longer available at Yale. Because Yale has no dental school, it had to withdraw from the national program in 2016.

When word came that Yale could no longer participate in SMDEP, Linda Jackson, director of diversity, inclusion, community engagement, and equity at the medical school, and Darin Latimore, M.D., deputy dean for diversity and inclusion, decided to launch a program that would serve local community college students. Jackson reached out to officials at Gateway Community College in New Haven and Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport. Last summer, 19 students attended the inaugural Yale Summer Enrichment Medical Academy (YSEMA), a free six-week program for students interested in careers in medicine.

At an informational meeting at Gateway in November, Jackson told about 30 prospective students what to expect from this year’s course, which will accept up to 25 students.

“If you’re interested in being a physician, physician assistant, or nurse, this will help you on that road,” said Jackson, herself a graduate of Gateway. “We are getting you ready for the next step. It is a very rigorous program. You will learn a lot.”

Also at that session at Gateway was Lauren Doninger, Ph.D., a professor of psychology who coordinates YSEMA at the community college.

“We really have identified the population that the School of Medicine is seeking to develop and nurture—first-generation students, DACA students, students who are underrepresented in medicine,” she said. Too often, she added, these are students who, “when they say they want to be a doctor, hear ‘You can be an aide.’ ”

The program includes organic chemistry, biology, writing and communications, introduction to research, and mentoring workshops.

“Clearly, it tells them what they are in for down the road,” said Antonios Pappantoniou, Ph.D., a professor of biology at Housatonic Community College. “Students often don’t have an impression of how much work it takes to get into medical school. This gives them some training in advance.”

An integral feature of the course is meeting Yale students like Hutchins, who shares the experiences of many of the students. Last year’s inaugural YSEMA class included Felicia Williams, a 45-year-old program manager for Goodwill. She already has a bachelor’s degree from Albertus Magnus College in social science, but came to Gateway to make a career change. She’d like to become a pharmacist. She found the program challenging but encouraging. “It makes me know that I could be whatever I want to be,” Williams said.

“It was overwhelming,” added Ama Dondorful-Amos, who took the course last summer with Williams. Dondorful-Amos arrived in the United States from Ghana two years ago, and hopes to become a pediatrician. “It opened up new perspectives. I learned how to run gels, how DNA replicates.”

For Beth Schmidt, the course sent a message that at 51, she too can aspire to medical school. Medicine has been part of her life since childhood. Both her parents were medical corpsmen in the U.S. Navy. She studied art history in college but spent a career as a marketer for medical device companies. Although she longed to study medicine, she felt she couldn’t afford medical school. After the YSEMA course ended, she secured an internship at a lab at the medical school, which became a paid position in January. She couldn’t have done it, she said, without a class called Introduction to Research, taught by Hutchins. “He was very encouraging,” she said.

Such responses are gratifying to Hutchins, who is determined to use his story as an example to others. Last summer, although he had an internship with the CFO of Partners HealthCare in Boston, he returned to New Haven twice a week to teach the research class. But he also offered pep talks in what is possible in life: such as attending an Ivy League school.

“I remember that feeling that no one is in your corner and no one believes that you can do it,” he said. “I wanted to be that voice that told them that they could do it.”