My name is Eric Li. I’m a second year medical student here at the Perelman School of Medicine, and a first generation child of immigrants who had come to the United States with very little. I was driven to pursue medicine after seeing my grandparent’s struggles with chronic illnesses, and witnessing the difference that good clinicians and their advocacy made on the health of my family. Inspired by the challenges my parents overcame when they first came to the U.S. as they navigated the educational and immigration systems, and inspired by the stories of my medical school classmates, I’ve taken an interest in ensuring first generation and/or low-income students (FGLI) have a fair shot at a career in medicine.
My name is Cheyenne Williams, a fourth year student at PSOM. I am a first-generation college graduate originally from Virginia where I was raised by a working single-mother. After my dreams of becoming a physician were made possible through merit and charitable scholarships, I co-founded the Penn FGLI group, to provide support and community for FGLI medical students like myself.
My name is Michaela Hitchner. I am a first-generation college graduate from New Jersey and second year medical student at PSOM. After losing his job during the recession, my father worked tirelessly for three years learning new trades. It was during this time that my fascination with my roller-skating pediatrician became my motivation to continue my education after high school. However, it was not until late in my undergraduate years that I recognized the immense impact my first-generation identity had on my experiences in higher education and my path to PSOM. In order to increase the visibility of FGLI students and their narratives, I became the co-leader of the Penn FGLI group and co-founded the Med Legs podcast.
That’s us. We came together as Perelman School of Medicine students because we wanted to increase educational equity in access to medical school. We’ve seen how challenging it can be to enter the medical field as FGLI students and we united to find ways to improve the socioeconomic diversity pipeline to medical school.
While some institutions, like PSOM, have programs to support FGLI students throughout medical school, free pre-admissions programs and resources catered to FGLI students interested in a career in medicine are lacking. To meet this dire need, we created The UpLIFT Project.
The UpLIFT Project addresses not only the challenges FGLI students face when applying to medical school, but also the additional obstacles posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. UpLIFT provides a one-stop-shop, comprehensive resource for FGLI students as they navigate the medical school application process.
Barriers for FIGLI Students
Applying to medical school is regarded as one of the most competitive admissions processes, with over 50,000 applicants per year, and on average, less than a 5 percent acceptance rate. The challenges of pursuing the path to medicine are exponentially greater for FGLI students. With limited access to resources and typically few personal or familial connections to medicine, the odds of becoming a physician are stacked against applicants from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds.
The difference between who is applying to medical school and who is getting accepted has always been wide across the nation. In the U.S., roughly 50 percent of current medical students come from the top quintile of household income, even though students of all socioeconomic backgrounds apply in relatively equal proportions. Using medical school admissions consulting services and paying for MCAT preparation courses is becoming increasingly commonplace—and these packages can regularly cost upwards of $10,000. For students who can’t afford these services, they may be missing out on valuable information and resources that are critical for having a fair shot in applying to medical school.
When we decided to pursue careers in medicine, we learned early that it required upfront investment of research, volunteering, and shadowing clinicians. For most medical school applicants, with the social capital and connections to find these opportunities, those initial investments pay big dividends later in their careers in medicine. But for FGLI applicants, like some of us, the resources to achieve this career goal are few and far between. This is the struggle faced by many FGLI applicants each year.
What’s more, closing the socioeconomic diversity gap in medical education benefits patient care. It has been demonstrated in other countries that increasing the diversity in socioeconomic backgrounds among physicians may help to close the gap in access to care for underserved and rural communities.
Creating Equitable Opportunity
After noticing—and experiencing—the stark differences in socioeconomic status between medical students and the populations we serve, we created The UpLIFT Project to explore the barriers preventing FGLI students from successfully applying to medical school. Through that research, we landed on the idea to create an all-inclusive guide to pursuing a career in medicine, with a focus in aiding FGLI applicants.
The comprehensive, 250+ page guide features 18 chapters which explain the medical school application process from start to finish—from preparing to apply and studying for the MCAT, to the actual application season and writing acceptance-worthy essays, and eventually, to matriculation.
UpLIFT hasn’t stopped there.
Due to the pandemic, most undergraduate schools have shifted to a remote learning programs. This change has limited opportunities for prospective medical students to connect with mentors or receive advising. With this new barrier in mind, UpLIFT is now working to produce a companion podcast series and video course to augment its guidebook resource, providing students with more approachable avenues of learning about the medical school admissions process and receiving the mentorship they need.
We believe that everyone should have a fair shot in applying to medical school, and that no one should have their dreams denied because valuable information was locked behind paywalls. This effort serves as a big step in the right direction.
Eric Li, Cheyenne Williams, and Michaela Hitchner are students in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and founding members of The UpLIFT Project. For more information or to download the guide, visit http://uplift.guide/. The group is focused on growing the UpLIFT Project to reach more students who may benefit from this guide and similar resources. If you would like to get in touch, please email The UpLIFT Project at firstname.lastname@example.org.