Program Aims to Close the Gap for Underrepresented Students

Thanks to UML's MAGIC, Jose Archila Quezada has won provisional acceptance to UMass Medical School Image by Courtesy
Applied biomedical sciences major Jose Archila Quezada has won provisional acceptance to UMass Medical School, thanks to MAGIC.

By Katharine Webster

Without MAGIC, Jose Archila Quezada might have given up on his dream of becoming a doctor.

He struggled in some of his science classes his first semester at UMass Lowell, and he began to doubt that he’d ever have the GPA and test scores to get into medical school.

“I saw the other pre-med students as competition,” he says. “I felt like everyone was getting better grades and that was pushing me down.”

But his second semester, he signed up for a one-credit seminar on current issues in medicine, offered through the pre-med living-learning community and taught by Chemistry Assoc. Teaching Prof. Khalilah Reddie. The eight students read and discussed articles, many of them dealing with ethics and health care.

Chemistry Assoc. Teaching Prof. Khalilah Reddie talks to a student after an Organic Chemistry class Image by K. Webster
Chemistry Assoc. Teaching Prof. Khalilah Reddie started MAGIC to help students from underrepresented groups succeed in becoming health professionals.
“I took that seminar to re-motivate myself and see if I really wanted to do medical school, and I decided that I really did,” he says.

For Reddie, who teaches multiple sections of Organic Chemistry, the seminar was preparation for a program that would provide chemistry tutoring and support to students from groups that are underrepresented in medicine, including Black, Hispanic and Southeast Asian American students.

Many are first-generation college students who come from school districts that don’t offer many AP science classes or prepare them well for the critical thinking section of the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), Reddie says.

“These kids aren’t given a fair chance from the get-go,” Reddie says. “They are playing catch-up from the day they start college. Most of them are behind on every metric – their reading, their chemistry skills – but we can give them a fair shot. We can provide equity in their educational pathway.”

MAGIC holds a pre-pandemic event on medical school admissions with a representative of Harvard Medical School Image by Khalilah Reddie
Dr. George Agyapong speaks to students at a MAGIC event in 2019, while a medical student at Harvard. He is now a medical resident at Yale.
So, with support from the Kennedy College of Sciences and Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Julie Nash, she started the Medical Profession Admission Gap Initiative and Collaboration, or MAGIC, in fall 2019. Francine Coston, associate director of Multicultural Affairs, and Shontae Praileau, coordinator of College-Based Advising, helped Reddie to structure MAGIC – and then identify incoming first-year students and rising sophomores who showed academic promise and a strong interest in pursuing medical and other health careers.

That fall, 40 first- and second-year students enrolled, including Archila Quezada. MAGIC provides twice-weekly tutoring in Chemistry I and II for first-year students and Organic Chemistry I and II for sophomores. The students also learn about the medical school admission process.

Archila Quezada, who had switched his major from biology to applied biomedical sciences so that he would have career options, says MAGIC helped him stay on the pre-med track and do well in his classes. He also learned that medical schools are looking for patient care experience and interpersonal skills, not just grades and MCAT scores.

Most important, he stopped seeing other pre-med students as the competition.

“I don’t know if I would have passed Organic Chemistry without that tutoring, but the thing I got out of it most was the relationship with the kids in the group,” he says. “We studied with each other and checked in with each other. Through MAGIC, I saw we could help each other. That’s where I got a community.”

Biology major Shakira Fedna at a CVS where she works as a pharmacy tech Image by K. Webster
Biology major Shakira Fedna, who works as a pharmacy tech at CVS, has been accepted to UMass Medical School's BaccMD program.

Shakira Fedna, who joined MAGIC as a first-year biology major, also found the support invaluable.

Fedna was working as a pharmacy technician 40 hours a week, and she was tempted to drop biology and switch her major to public health. But she says Reddie encouraged her to stick with biology – and to cut back on her work hours.

“I was working so much trying to pay for school that half the time I didn’t even know why I was doing what I was doing,” Fedna says. “But I went into biology because I love biology, and I knew if I opted out of it, I’d be disappointed in myself. So I decided to stick with it.”

For some, MAGIC serves as preparation for another, similar program: the Baccalaureate MD Pathway Program (BaccMD), which prepares UMass undergraduates who are financially disadvantaged, first-generation college students, or from racial and ethnic groups that are under-represented in medicine for admission to UMass Medical School.

Cake brought by UML Assoc. Teaching Prof. Khalilah Reddie to celebrate MAGIC students' acceptance into the BaccMD program Image by Khalilah Reddie
The cake Reddie bought to celebrate the acceptance of three MAGIC students into UMass Medical's BaccMD program.
Students apply to the BaccMD program as sophomores. During MAGIC’s first year, three sophomores in the group, including Archila Quezada, applied – and all three were accepted. This year, three more – including Fedna – applied and got in.

BaccMD students attend residential summer programs and a monthly book group that introduce them to different medical specialties while preparing them for the MCAT through projects, physics instruction and seminar-style discussions.

This spring, all three students in the BaccMD program who are juniors have won provisional acceptance to UMass Medical School, including Archila Quezada and chemistry major Benedicta Agyemang-Brantuo.

“Prof. Reddie wrote a letter of support for the BaccMD program. I really appreciated that,” Agyemang-Brantuo says. “And on the day we got accepted, she brought us cake, and she was jumping up and down with us and celebrating. She goes above and beyond to support her students.”

Biology major Benedicta Agyemang-Brantuo in the lab at UML Image by Courtesy
Chemistry major Benedicta Agyemang-Brantuo started a student club, Advocates of Health Equity for Minorities.
Agyemang-Brantuo is now doing her part to support younger students. She works as a chemistry tutor for MAGIC, and last fall, she started a new student club, Advocates of Health Equity for Minorities. The club invites health care professionals as guest speakers and performs community service. The effort earned her the university’s 2021 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Service Award.

Archila Quezada, meanwhile, has pursued patient care experience by earning his EMT license and working for a company that does non-emergency transport of patients. He especially loves working with children, and he plans to become a pediatrician. Now, he’s working as an emergency room technician at UMass Memorial-Marlborough Hospital.

A little MAGIC, he says, went a long way to boost his self-confidence.

“I have the capability and the resources in front of me to pursue the challenging goal of being a doctor,” he says. “So why not me?”