A mission to mentor

October 30, 2018

Two black med students are channeling social media to help other people of color pursue careers in medicine.

Med school is tough, as you may recall. Medical students need plenty of mentoring and guidance, especially students of color who most likely haven’t had the same experiences, support, or opportunities as their white classmates.

How can minority medical students get the inside track on acing the GI block, discuss the challenges of residencies, or learn more about what to expect next semester? Just ask The Chocolate Docs, two second-year medical students at the University of Texas Health McGovern Medical School who have developed a YouTube video series to address the academic and personal growth issues that may cause minority med students to struggle.

When Jessica Green, 24, and Nneka Madu, 23, first met during orientation week, they didn’t feel they had much in common and didn’t think they’d end up being friends. Yet they kept running into each other in classes, hallways, and study groups. One day, they started talking and realized they shared a lot of passions-including minority advocacy, mentoring, student mental health, and the potential of social media as a learning platform.

“We understand each other’s personalities,” Green says. “We have similar passions about mentorship and helping society change the face of medicine. We have the opportunity to talk with students about how to approach challenging situations, how to handle burnout, and all the other things medical students go through.”

Tuning in

The first few YouTube videos happened without much planning. They were just a fun distraction from studying. They practically had to beg their friends to log in and share the videos, Green remembers. But, as viewership surged into the thousands, the women saw the greater purpose in their ideas-a way to counter the lack of supportive information for young minorities as they navigate the complex waters of medical school. In one video, the women shared their experiences and tips on how to tackle the med school application process. In another, they discussed the realities of juggling intense study loads and grueling schedules.

The mission needed a name, and The Chocolate Docs online moniker was born. Describing themselves on social media as a duo “dipped in melanin and fueled by mentorship,” Green and Madu pledge to “encourage, uplift, and inspire underrepresented minorities in STEM.”

Minority students in the fields of science, technology, engineering, or math have deep needs for basic information on applying and preparing for medical school, as well as emotional support once they get in, Green and Madu say.

The national statistics support their mission: While 2015 was a banner year for the number of applicants to medical school (a national increase of 56 percent from 2014), the pool of black or African American applicants still hovered at only 8 percent, according to the 2015 American Association of Medical College (AAMC) data.

By 2018, the current graduation rates have not risen to an encouraging rate for minorities. In the 2017-2018 graduation year, only 5.5 percent of black or African-American med students graduated, compared to 56 percent of white students, the AAMC reports.

Less than a year after posting their first video, 38,000 people have viewed The Chocolate Docs YouTube channel, which currently offers 27 videos on everything from how to improve study habits to conquering the interview jitters. One of the most popular videos, “What They Don’t Tell You About Medical School,” has tallied 7,700 views and counting.

The video topics are rooted in real-life experiences that reach beyond the textbooks. One of the first videos, about how to get over failing a big test, remains one of the most popular. “We struggled a lot in our first semester, and we wanted to be transparent about our experiences with failure and how we overcame that,” Madu explains. “You may have done well in high school and college, but when you come to medical school, you’re with the cream of the crop. It’s common to be overwhelmed, but you don’t always have the tools to deal with that. For a lot of students, they suddenly realize, ‘OK, I don’t really know how to study.’”

Their outreach has expanded to Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, where followers often post questions or suggest topics for them to tackle in an upcoming video. “Over time, other people started reposting and sharing our page in other social media communities, including those that focus on the concerns of minorities.”

Starting out

Both women hail from Texas-Madu from Houston and Green from Fort Worth. Green says she has always wanted to be a doctor and will be the first person in her family to earn a medical degree. Her first love is pediatrics, but with a bit of medical school under her belt, she’s now equally keen on psychiatry.

Madu originally thought about following her father into teaching math but decided on healthcare instead. Her journey included several stops in other career sectors, including working as an emergency room scribe and thoughts of becoming a physician assistant. While working in a San Antonio hospital ED, one of the physicians encouraged her to apply to medical school. “He told me I’d never know what I was capable of unless I tried,” she recalls. “He said I shouldn’t go through my whole life wondering if I could actually get in. I should just get the application and try.”

Both women have brought their personal experiences as med school students to The Chocolate Docs endeavor, hoping to pay it forward in what Madu calls “mentoring moments.” While an undergraduate, Green spent three years mentoring freshman students, helping them build leadership and communication skills. “It was an opportunity to learn how I could be a better mentor and how I could teach others to be mentors while advocating for underrepresented minorities who don’t always have the voice to affect change in the healthcare system,” she says.

Green and Madu are quick to credit their own medical school successes to their supportive families, something they say minority students don’t always have.

While nothing about medical school is easy, minority students who have a support network have a much better chance at succeeding both academically and emotionally, especially since the demands of long hours and challenging curricula can be overwhelming. In response, many medical schools have launched minority-specific groups to support their students-Johns Hopkins offers more than seven different ethnic med student associations to assist students with everything from language struggles to cultural differences that can affect study success.

Family support is something both women say has made all the difference in their med school journeys. “Every time I’m stressed I talk to my parents. They’re my rock,” Green says. “When I told my Mom I wanted to be a doctor, she said, ‘You’re the one who sets the goals for yourself. We’re here to support you, but you’re the one who is going to have to carry this out.’”

Even the mere decision to apply to medical school can include ethnic barriers for some, Madu says.  “I’m grateful that my parents let me come to the decision to apply to medical school on my own,” Madu says. “If you don’t truly want to do it for yourself, then it’s going to be very difficult to stay motivated when things get hard.”

Helping others

The mission of mentoring may seem in direct contrast to medical school’s competitive reputation, where peer support often disappears under the cloak of cutthroat academia. “When I was an undergrad, it seemed like the pre-med students didn’t help each other,” Green says. “As a minority, I felt like I didn’t know as much about the topics as my counterparts did and didn’t have enough advice.”

But for The Chocolate Docs, changing the status quo is the whole idea. While Madu and Green are busy focused on their own med school courses, they’ve decided their calling is to help other students do the same-be accepted into medical school, achieve success as students, and then go out into the world to practice medicine.

“We all talk about how we want more diverse and culturally competent physicians in the field,” Madu says. “The United States is a very diverse place, but the physician population doesn’t reflect that. It’s our job to help the next generation of physicians become culturally competent and understand the patients they’ll be serving.”

Based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 68 percent of physicians and surgeons are white, about 23 percent are Asian, and nearly 6 percent are black.

Madu knows it sounds like a cliché, but The Chocolate Docs want to be the change they desire to see. In between their own coursework and exams, Green and Madu somehow manage to add several new videos per month and maintain conversations with other students from around the world on social media. Their how-to advice extends to pre-med students in particular-including the process of deciding to apply to med school, practicing mock interviews, and preparing for the MCATs.

As their YouTube video log (VLOG) matures, they plan to add sessions that focus on challenges specific to each year of medical school as well as educational clips that explain medical conditions.

Both women say they hope the foundation they’ve laid will grow into a national network of mentoring and shadowing opportunities for students, including collaborating with physicians who can answer questions and offer advice about pursuing the profession. They’re also working on ways to support minority students with financial hardships, so students can focus on studying.

“We’re thinking about having a scholarship or raising funds, so we can provide more resources that are low-cost or free,” Madu says. “We understand how expensive this journey is, and if students are already financially struggling, it’s going to make getting through those first semesters even harder.”

One thing seems certain: The Chocolate Docs will surely gain a host of potential video topics next year when their third-year hospital rotations begin.

Editor’s note: If your physician practice would be willing to host a student shadowing opportunity or be part of an online mentoring network, contact thechocolatedocs@gmail.com.

 

Pamela Tabar is a healthcare writer based in Medina, Ohio.