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More Than Numbers

January 2010

The school of medicine reinvigorates a scholarship program aimed at increasing student diversity.

More Than Numbers

Last May, Martha Tesfalul was wrapping up her studies at Harvard University and  preparing for a mental health fellowship in Eritrea, the East African country where her parents were born. But first, the aspiring pediatrician faced a tough choice: whether to attend Johns Hopkins or Harvard for medical school. Tesfalul wavered between the two, uncertain which would best support her ambition to work in medically underserved communities.

Then came a call from Daniel Teraguchi, assistant dean and director of the Office of Student Diversity at Hopkins’ school of medicine, which helped her decide. He informed Tesfalul that she was one of three admitted students to be named Johns Hopkins Medicine Scholars. The honor came with a scholarship of $40,000 a year.

Tesfalul’s choice to join the Hopkins class of 2013 showcases the scholarship program’s ability to increase diversity at the school of medicine. The successor to a similar scholarship created in 2005, the award program was launched this year with new funding and selection criteria that centers on financial need as well as such traits as global citizenship and resilience.

In Tesfalul’s scholarly work and actions, Teraguchi saw someone who could bring fresh insight and energy to the school. The sociology major had explored the complex connections between health care, society and public policy. During breaks from school, she had conducted lab and clinical research, volunteered in Hurricane Katrina relief efforts and served at a Boston-based nonprofit devoted to the health of low-income families.

Tesfalul heard affirmation in Teraguchi’s scholarship offer and the reasons he gave for her selection. She knew that she could thrive here. “That was really powerful,” Tesfalul says. It proved “that Hopkins not only supports but is also acting on values that resonate deeply with my own."

Building on Success

Over the years, Hopkins has endeavored to increase diversity while grappling with the onerous cost of medical school. In 2004, just 30 percent of the underrepresented minority students who were accepted to the school of medicine decided to matriculate here, down from 55 percent two years earlier.

Such findings and an institutional priority to increase diversity propelled the school and members of its board of visitors (a group of about 40 friends and donors, including Johns Hopkins Medicine trustees) to jointly fund 10 full scholarships for the class of 2009. Minority representation quickly rose from about 10 percent to 17 percent. The following year, two more board members signed on as benefactors of the four-year awards.

With no additional scholarships in the pipeline, however, minority representation dropped in subsequent years, hovering annually between 10 percent and 14 percent. Those numbers make Hopkins competitive against peer medical schools, but they fall behind such schools as Harvard (19 percent minority in its class of 2009).

A Powerful Gesture

In 2009, as earlier scholarship students were nearing graduation, Chairman of the JHM Board Mike Armstrong and Vice Dean for Education David Nichols sought to energize the diversity effort by creating a new award program.

Now, instead of supporting big blocks of students from a single class, the intent is to give three four-year awards for each incoming class, “creating a nice cycle of mentoring and connection and community,” Teraguchi says. The scholarships are funded by donors from the board of advisors (as the board of visitors is now known) and trustees.

Teraguchi acknowledges that Hopkins’ scholarship program isn’t a comprehensive fix. Still, the awards are “a very powerful gesture” of the school’s commitment, he says. “It’s a concrete action, not just somebody saying, yes, we believe in diversity.”

So far the school has secured funding for two of the three awards it intends to offer to members of the class of 2014. Additional donors are needed to offer a third scholarship and to support the program in subsequent years.

In the future, Teraguchi expects that the pool of potential backers for the program will expand beyond the board of advisors and trustees.

Gretchen Kolsky, a senior research associate at The George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, believes that medical schools should focus efforts on enhancing funding for diversity-related scholarships.

Even if an award isn’t guaranteed, when potential students “know that scholarships may be available should they be accepted, it’s an incentive to apply,” says Kolsky, who is involved in the Medical Education Futures Study, an analysis of initiatives for attracting underrepresented minorities to health care jobs and reducing health disparities.

Resilience, Service and Global Citizenship

Like its predecessor, the Johns Hopkins Medicine Scholars program “is not necessarily focused on black or Hispanic students,” Nichols says.

“We define diversity very broadly,” he says. “Let’s say you were the first to finish college in your family and your parents didn’t have the funds to send you to medical school. In that context, you would be an underrepresented demographic at Hopkins and we would take that into account.”

Recipients of the previous scholarship program, however, weren’t always aware of what made them attractive candidates for the awards. While grateful for the opportunities provided by a tuition-free medical education, some wondered if the program’s sole purpose was to increase minority representation. Designed with input from those recipients, the new scholarship’s criteria establish clear guidelines for selecting future scholars.

As a Hopkins panel makes scholarship awards for the class of 2014, members know what to look for in addition to financial need: resiliency, how a student approaches challenges as opportunities, duration of service in helping others, and global citizenship. “We can objectively look at people,” says panelist Luis Carlos Monson, a 2006 recipient of the board of advisors scholarship whose plans alternate between practicing in rural Guatemala and finding a position in the United States that would allow him to perform humanitarian assistance around the globe.

Nichols agrees: “While financial need is the starting point, we are focused on specifically laying out the additional qualifications for this scholarship and having a very meticulous and thoughtful process for making the award.”

Benefactors also appreciate knowing the backgrounds of scholarship recipients and having the chance to help them further their goals. Charles Scheeler, the Johns Hopkins Medicine trustee who funded Tesfalul’s scholarship, has no doubt that his annual investment will pay off. “Martha is going to be very successful,” Scheeler says. “She’ll treat thousands of people during the course of her career and touch their lives.”

- Stephanie Shapiro

Back to current diversity stories

George Dover

“We are leaders and we need to be a leader in diversity.”

-George Dover, Director
Department of

Edward Miller, CEO

“Research in corporate America shows that diverse teams—those with people of different races, genders, ages and ethnic or socioeconomic backgrounds—are more innovative and productive than homogenous ones, provided that each person’s contributions are sought out and included. That’s our challenge.”

-Edward Miller,
former dean/CEO


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