Growing up in Sacramento’s Pocket-Greenhaven neighborhood, Laduan Smedley knew early on that he wanted to make prosthetic limbs.
He worked hard in school, surrounded himself with friends who “were going somewhere,” he said, and spent hours researching scholarships that could help him get into UC Davis.
But when he applied to the university’s biomedical engineering program, he was rejected based on one factor – he hadn’t taken calculus.
“Not having the level of math I needed in high school, I was devastated,” he said. “I was ready to give up.”
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He didn’t. With the help of a school mentor, he improved his SAT score and wrote an appeal letter persuasive enough to win his acceptance. Now he’s an orthotist and prosthetist working at UC Davis Medical Center.
“It all comes down to who you surround yourself with,” he said to an attentive teenage audience Saturday at Arthur A. Benjamin Health Professions High School in Sacramento. “As long as that door stays open, you have the opportunity in front of you.”
Smedley was one of more than a dozen African American health professionals to speak at the third annual Minority Health Professions Mentor Program, a free event hosted by a local nonprofit called Yes2Kollege Education Resources. While a goal was to bolster pursuit of careers in the medical profession among black students, the event drew many other students of color.
Whether speaking about psychology, public health, dentistry or pediatrics all speakers delivered the same message: No matter what happens, don’t quit.
The Sacramento area, with four hospital systems, a budding biotech industry and many medical nonprofits, has become a hub for medical careerists. Parents and teachers at the event said they are determined that black youths pursue those opportunities. Students received inspirational lessons on how to succeed in the health field and not be thwarted by emotional, academic or economic barriers.
“We’re creating a family lineage and a legacy of medical careers in Sacramento,” said Toni Colley-Perry, an education consultant with Yes2Kollege and co-founder of the African American Women’s Health Legacy Program. “It’s really important that we take this on.”
A 2014 report from the Association of American Medical Colleges showed that only 2,500 of California’s 85,500 physicians, or 3 percent, are African American.
Black students make up 7 percent of medical school applicants in the United States, according to a 2012 report by the association. Only 6 percent of black students who apply to medical school actually enroll, compared to 57 percent of white applicants.
Speakers said the challenges are daunting. Completing medical school, nursing school and other licensing and certification programs requires stamina and drive – qualities that flow from self-confidence and community support. That support isn’t always available at home, said Geneva White, a graduating fourth-year medical student at UC Davis and Sacramento native.
White grew up in a low-income family where education wasn’t the main emphasis, she said. Her father scolded her for reading books in the house. Others in her community questioned her goals and her ability to achieve them. Still, she inched ahead on her path to become a doctor, attending both Sacramento City College and California State University, Sacramento.
“I had an adviser who told me that because of my background – because I’d gone to a state school and came from a lower socioeconomic neighborhood – that I couldn’t do it,” White said. “So I got a new adviser.”
Some professionals talked about the struggle of working while in college, or the isolating feeling of being one of just handful of black students in a mostly white medical school class.
In addition to the one-day conference, Yes2Kollege also facilitates a job shadow program during the month of July, where high school students spend a workday with professionals and medical students of their choosing.
Vince Pearson runs an after-school program for young African American men called ACE. It focuses on “attitude, commitment (and) excellence” for teens who need or want guidance, he said.
Pearson said he brought seven ACE participants to the session.
“If they see something they like, they’ll have a reason to stay in school, keep their grades up, get that diploma and move on to something else,” he said. “Unfortunately, society still thinks they can’t be as smart as any other chiropractor or dentist. That’s why they need this support.”