A few months ago, the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria and Illinois Central College co-sponsored a public showing of a documentary entitled Storming The Gates: The Struggle for Access to Higher Education in the State of Illinois. Produced by the Illinois African-American and Latino Higher Education Alliance (IAHLEA), the film highlights the struggles of African-American and Latino students to gain admission to Illinois’ major academic institutions during the 1960s.
It Takes a Village
One might well think that access to higher education in 2009—in Illinois or anywhere else in the U.S.—is limited only by a student’s grades, determination and ability to piece together family funds, grants and scholarships to pay tuition and book expenses. Think again! After the viewing of the film, open discussion ensued. Listening to the comments made that afternoon by students, educators and parents, I heard them recall heroes and heroines of their academic past—a parent who instilled in them the importance of getting an education, or a counselor or teacher who made a difference. They mulled over the state of affairs in Peoria’s public school system: inadequate parental involvement, often mediocre ACT scores, less-than-desirable high school graduation rates—the same system that is supposed to prepare students for entry into higher education.
Before they left, those who watched the documentary longed to take some kind of positive action—perhaps a follow-up forum—and I recalled the familiar words of an African proverb: It takes a village to raise a child. Here was our village. I also remembered having read these words by Michael Toney, executive director of the Urban Health Program at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Chicago: “Solutions to the problems facing blacks in education must be comprehensive and range from preschool to professional and graduate school.” I asked myself, “Are we too late?”
Then, I had flashbacks of my experiences in the 1960s and ‘70s. I arrived at Bradley University in the fall of 1964, having relocated from the mid-South, to live with Peoria relatives. I was the proud graduate of a segregated public school system, the first in my nuclear family to attend an institution of higher learning, the recipient of funds from the Illinois Scholarship Commission, Romeo B. Garrett Scholarship and United Negro College Fund—and my first time navigating the halls of a predominantly white institution.
I had spent the two previous summers in Peoria, as an adventurous and enthusiastic participant in civil rights marches and sit-ins, including the historical March on Washington, D.C. in August 1963. Our purpose was to gain access to jobs, education and area restaurants. Like the community activists in the documentary, we were a cadre of young people, adults and old folk with dreams of gaining unlimited access to entities that at the time had limited access or were off-limits, especially down South, where I came from. Back then, we dreamt of desegregation; today, our new buzzword is diversity.
Holding the Gate Open
What does it really mean? Is merely “opening the gates” enough? I turned to the website of the Association of American Medical Colleges for some additional insight: “Diversity is about more than increasing numbers,” said Karen A. Lewis, Diversity Affairs committee chair and assistant vice president for enrollment management at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee. “It benefits all students to have a diverse background in education and have more representation in the workforce. It’s through experience and interaction that you get an expanded awareness of people of different backgrounds, be it race, ethnicity, religion, gender, disabilities or other factors. You can’t just put all that in a textbook.”
In two words, diversity is awareness and acceptance. It’s interacting with those unlike you, so that after a time, you start to feel comfortable in expressing opposing viewpoints, being open to understanding their cultural nuances, and using that understanding to develop the knowledge and skills to help you adapt to the changing faces in Peoria, our state and our nation.
Is it enough to just open the gates and let diversity in? No. Were it not for a support network that included my relatives, former in-laws and friends, I would not have graduated from college. It took longer than four years, but I did—despite a failed marriage, resulting in single parenthood without regular child support, dropping out of college, and transitioning to night classes, first at ICC, and then back to Bradley, because I had to take a full-time day job. Any number of such obstacles can hinder the success of an open gate to achieve diversity.
As academic skills specialist in the College of Medicine at the University of Illinois, my role is to assist in diversifying the medical student body, and subsequently, the physician workforce, in the state of Illinois. Our minority students are categorized as Black/African, Hispanic/Latino, Native American Indian, and Pacific Islander.
In 1978, the Illinois State Assembly voted to establish the Urban Health Program (UHP) at the University. Since then, UHP has developed a strong track record and tradition in educating minority physicians. For more than 30 years, the University’s College of Medicine has taken a proactive stance by developing pipeline programs in middle and high schools to nurture the interest of students from disadvantaged backgrounds in careers in medicine and to prepare them to gain admission and get the required training to become physicians who are more likely to serve the healthcare needs of underserved communities in Illinois and the nation.
Our programming helps these students to thrive in medical school by providing them with academic support, social networks, tutoring resources and connections with community physician mentors, such as Thembi Conner-Garcia, Ramon Garcia, George Lane, Churphena Reid, Kelvin Wynn, Lisa Whitty, and Darrick Woods. Recruit, Retain and Graduate may be our mantra, but mentoring is essential. It helps for students to be able to relate to someone who has been there and understands—and even looks like them. It tells them, “Yes, I can.”
So, if diversity becomes reality here, I must search for a new line of work. Talk about a Catch 22! Yet, that will not deter me from doing what I can to promote diversity in higher education. To be true to the spirit of the documentary, and our history, I know I must hold the gate open, pass the torch and move out of the way! iBi