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Pre-med orientation program for indigenous students

Medical students are volunteering as student mentors for indigenous students interested in becoming doctors. At an orientation meeting last fall, medical students (from left) Jennifer Power, Lacey Harding and Angela Wareham with indigenous student Meghan Matthews.

By Sharon Gray

Indigenous students at Memorial University interested in becoming physicians are being mentored by medical students willing to share their experience.

In the fall of 2009, the first pre-med orientation program for indigenous students at Memorial was held over two days. Sessions at the campus in St. John’s, ranged from presentations by a current medical student on how to prepare for the application and by faculty members on steps to apply for admission and what to expect as medical candidates.

“Sessions also included things to think about like scholarship and funding sources as well as managing debt load,” explained Dr. Carolyn Sturge Sparkes, program co-ordinator for the Aboriginal Health Human Resources Initiative, funded by Health Canada.

“Participants learned about additional support provided to them through such agencies as the Native Liaison Office at Memorial University and the Native Friendship Centre.”

The highlight of the two-day program for the participants (the mentees) was the chance to meet their perspective mentors (current medical students) and to socialize with them. To date, 15 medical students have volunteered to take on the mentorship role.
“The exchange between the two groups was most positive,” said Dr. Sturge Sparkes. “One of the participants wrote in the program evaluation that one of the strengths of the sessions was ‘having actual medical students here to provide input, experiences, stories, and to give us hope.’”

Since the orientation program, mentor-mentee links have been established and communication between the two has already started.

The Orientation Program is earmarked as an ongoing annual event. The main goal of the initiative is to increase the number of indigenous candidates in the Faculty of Medicine. To start, two seats will be specifically reserved for indigenous students of Newfoundland and Labrador for the application year 2010-11.

“These two seats are only the beginning,” said Dr. James Rourke, dean of Medicine at Memorial. “We see this as part of an integrated program that will not only encourage more indigenous students to apply and get into medical school but will support them with a more focused education on providing improved care to indigenous people."

While seven potential candidates were available to attend the orientation program, Dr. Sturge Sparkes said there are actually 13 students who wish to be a part of it.

“Given that this initiative has only been in existence for a year, the degree of response is phenomenal. No one can say that students in Newfoundland and Labrador belonging to indigenous communities have not thought about medicine as a possible career path.”

In March 2008, the Faculty of Medicine submitted a proposal to the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nation Chiefs Secretariat for an initiative titled Making Memorial’s Faculty of Medicine a Better Place for Aboriginal Students. The intent of the initiative is to make the Faculty of Medicine more inclusionary for students from the various First Nations/Inuit/ Métis communities, predominantly within the province.

“This will be done in three ways,” said Dr. Rourke. “We’re looking at a set of bridging programs services and programs designed to recruit more indigenous students to the university and to ensure the completion of a medical degree.”
Along with this is an overall revision of the undergraduate medical curriculum and transformative change to heighten cultural sensitivity of both aboriginal and non-aboriginal students on issues of aboriginal health and health care services.
The third change is a revamping of the Master of Public Health Program to increase student practicum opportunity in a First Nations/Inuit/Métis (FNIM) community; to provide nationwide online delivery of one or more graduate courses; and to enhance access for aboriginal students to the public health program.