Program Aims to Close the Gap for Underrepresented Students
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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?”