Members of Des Moines University’s Student National Medical Association (SNMA) are working to change the world of health care, one interaction at a time: In addition to their on-campus activities, they are engaging with minority grade school, middle school and high school students in the Des Moines, IA, community to serve as mentors and role models.
SNMA is committed to supporting current and future under-represented minority medical students, addressing the needs of underserved communities and increasing the number of clinically excellent, culturally competent and socially conscious physicians. That has to start early, says DMU osteopathic medical and anatomy student Ruffin Tchakounte, who is co-president of SNMA with classmate Tope Banwo.
“Mentoring youth has always been one of our biggest desires, because we know that a lack of minorities in medicine is directly linked to the fact that younger kids at the grade-school level do not have access and information on the steps to take to pursue a career as a physician,” he says.
SNMA members’ efforts to mentor local youth got a big boost in 2019 when the organization connected with Genesis Youth Foundation, a central Iowa nonprofit dedicated to helping refugee families level the playing field through a variety of after-school, weekend and summer athletics, arts and academic programs. The organization is now planning its second annual “I Am Africa” fundraising event in April, in part to highlight its accomplishments to the larger community.
Genesis Youth Foundation was founded by Sam and Tricia Gabriel, who as children fled war-torn Liberia, ended up in an Ivory Coast refugee camp and eventually met at a Walmart in Des Moines. They married, had two children and pursued their education at Mercy College of Health Sciences. But they also were determined to make life better for other refugee children.
“Sam bought into our excitement of reaching out to his kids and our shared vision of establishing something that was consistent to encourage the youth to consider careers in health care,” says Ruffin, who also earned his master of science in anatomy degree at DMU.
In addition to interacting with kids in Genesis Youth Foundation programs at schools and community centers throughout Des Moines, SNMA members are working to register them for Girls Exploring Medicine and Science, or GEMS, and Boys Reaching for Opportunities in Science, or BROS. These youth outreach programs, held on campus every spring, offer participants hands-on activities designed to inspire them to learn about and pursue careers in health care.
“Almost all of the kids we have shared our time with have been excited to learn about medicine and have enjoyed the different topics we have spoken to them about,” Ruffin says. “I believe what we are saying that resonates the most to them is that there are not a lot of minorities in medicine and that we need them. We need to continue to diversify medicine in the United States, and the kids are starting to buy into that fact.
“A great moment for me has been when some of the kids remembered that we were studying to be doctors and acknowledged that they have never seen black or brown doctors before. They were happy to know that we were going to be doctors someday,” he adds. “Challenging moments have been tied to hearing some of the kids tell us that no one in their family has pursued a career in medicine, and that because no one in their immediate life is a doctor, medicine isn’t for them. We are hoping to change that narrative.”