Will This New Initiative Attract More Black Students to Med School?

Chika Oriuwa is the only black student in her first-year med school class at the University of Toronto—but she hopes future cohorts will have greater diversity

Ishani Nath
Black Student Application Program: Chika Oriuwa, a black medical student at the University of Toronto advocating for greater diversity in medicine

(Courtesy: Chika Oriuwa)

A new admissions program starting next fall at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine hopes to help more black students earn white coats.

Chika Oriuwa—the only black student in her first-year medical school class of 259 students at U of T—is a strong advocate of the forthcoming Black Student Application Program (BSAP).

“Each medical student brings a wealth of different experiences with them to the class,” says Oriuwa, 23. “Having a medical school class that is diverse in many different ways introduces a dialogue that has the potential to shape the way we approach medicine.”

Plans for BSAP have been in the works for years, says Oriuwa, and she’s excited for it to finally launch in time for next year’s application cycle. She sees BSAP as a necessary step towards equalizing the playing field and gaining more diversity in medical school classrooms.

FLARE chatted with Oriuwa to dig deeper into her experience and her hopes and dreams for her career ahead.

From your own experience as a patient, why do you feel it’s important to have more diversity, and in particular more black representation in medicine? 

In the past year, I received care from a black physician—actually a black woman physician— and I saw the difference in terms of my comfort and my ability to relate to that doctor. Growing up, all of my doctors were white men so in terms of being able to see myself represented either as a minority or as a woman in medicine, I never saw that. There have been a couple experiences where I’ve gone to see a dermatologist for a skincare issue, for example, and I’ve been prescribed medications, but they didn’t know how they would react with my skin type. Because of that, I suffered consequences like when my skin was accidentally bleached at one point. That made me acutely aware of even the deficit in training in terms of how race can intersect with aspects of medicine.

You mentioned that you grew up only seeing physicians that were white men. At what point did you see yourself becoming a doctor?

Even though all the doctors that I saw were white men, I think what was really integral for me was the support I received from my family. I’ve always had this idea that I wanted to pursue medicine, and it definitely seemed intangible because I didn’t see any other black women in the field. When you don’t see yourself, you don’t think it’s meant for you. But my mom always told me that if I wanted something badly enough, I could achieve it. My family also wasn’t sugarcoating anything; they made it clear that I would face barriers, that people would comment on my race and gender, and those are realities I would have to face, but regardless of that, I could still do it. I think that was really integral, and they were absolutely right.

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Have you faced some of the barriers that they prepared you for?

Absolutely. Even to this day, I get comments of people doubting my competency. Prior to medical school, I would tell people I wanted to be a doctor and they would question me like it was something that was beyond of my reality, or what I should be aspiring towards. When I was going across the border, an agent asked me what I was in school for and what I wanted to do and they outright accused me of lying. Moving forward, going to the hospitals, I’m still going to have to face these things, like people assuming that I’m a nurse or a ward clerk, not guessing that I’m a physician. That’s something that women have to face in medicine every day, but there’s that added layer for black women.

You’re the only black person now in your medical school class at U of T. Is that something you noticed right away?

Yes. It’s something I noticed pretty much the first day of orientation, and I think I noticed it so quickly because when I accepted U of T’s offer, I built up this idyllic vision because the school is in Toronto, the most multicultural city in the country. I expected that there would be more of a reflection of that diversity in my class. In my undergraduate health sciences degree at McMaster University, I was the only black person in a cohort of 200 students. When I came to med school, I was eager to be in a more diverse learning environment—and when it happened again, I immediately noticed it was pretty much a replica of my undergrad program. That disillusionment was hard to process.

Can you give me an example of when you were able to provide a different perspective in your class because of your background?

Absolutely. There have been several instances either between myself and my peers or the faculty where I have brought up issues pertaining to either black health, minority health or marginalized health that is a novel perspective that they hadn’t yet broached or that they had no plans of broaching initially. For instance, when we’re talking about something in class, I will ask how we would look for those specific symptoms in someone who is of a darker complexion. A lot of the times, there’s been no clear answer and it’s definitely been frustrating at some points. If we’re learning medicine, I want to be able to learn medicine that is applicable to all individuals.

Are there some areas where the need for diversity is more pronounced than others? 

There will always be a benefit to having diversity at every level. But statistically, the areas that have the least diversity are surgery, which tend to be very male dominated, and then the higher you go in medicine, the less diversity you will see.

Are there other issues within diversity in medicine that you hope to work on in the future? 

One of the things that I’m trying to bring more focus to is how we can address not only diversity towards patients, but the diversity in medicine. In medicine we talk a lot about caring for diverse patients, but no one is talking about how we care for diverse physicians. How do we train physicians to be resilient when they are facing racism or sexism or Islamophobia in medicine? It happens all the time and no one talks about that. These are issues that I’ve raised with a preceptor and the response has been that these are issues that physicians deal with during residency, but I don’t think that’s fair. I don’t think it’s fair for physicians to be required to build up that resilience after medical school when they’re going to be on rotation and hearing these things as early as third year.

What do you say to people who may be critical of the BSAP initiative? 

Often criticisms come from people who believe that this type of program has a lower standard of admissions and a quota system. Not only does BSAP not have a quota, but there’s the exact same requirements as every other applicant to U of T. The only thing that is different is that they would need to submit an extra essay documenting their experiences within the black community and how that intersects with health care. The other difference is that the panel of physicians reviewing their applications and interviewing these applicants will be from a more diverse background. If anything, what this program is trying to do is equalize the opportunities and the standards for all applicants because right now, the application system is not fair to everybody.

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