This summer, 44 Baltimore City school students will shadow a diverse group of doctors, nurses and other health care professionals through the Medical Education Resources Initiative for Teens (MERIT) Health Leadership Academy. MERIT’s mission is to educate and empower students, deemed scholars, from underrepresented backgrounds to become health professionals and community leaders who advance health equity both inside and outside Baltimore’s hospitals and clinics.
“The scholars are such an impressive group of young people,” says MERIT mentor Paul O’Rourke, an internist at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. “They are incredibly intelligent, motivated and so passionate about health care. They want to make a difference in their world and their communities. I am sure each of them will have such a positive impact on Baltimore in their future careers.”
MERIT provides these students with a holistic support system for three years, including weekly Saturday sessions focused on academic enrichment and college admissions guidance, paid summer internships in hospitals and laboratories, as well as mentoring. Scholars are selected during their sophomore year of high school and must have a 2.75 or higher unweighted grade point average. They participate in intensive MERIT programming until graduation. MERIT alumni also receive guidance throughout college.
Johns Hopkins Medicine has been partners and supporters since MERIT’s founding in 2010. MERIT’s growth in recent years has been possible in large part due to support from the Maryland State Department of Education through several grant programs.
“The scholars get exposure to a wide range of health care programs, such as nursing and physical therapy,” says O’Rourke. “MERIT enables them to see which specialty field they may feel most passionate about. It also allows them to interact with a diverse array of mentors throughout Baltimore. They can really get a picture of real-world jobs and can decide what they enjoy the most.”
The students will spend five weeks rotating to different clinic sites and work with a different clinician each day.
“I love having them work with me in clinic,” says O’Rourke. “They’ll see patients with me, and then we’ll have time to talk afterward about questions they might have. It’s great to see the excitement on their faces. I think it really lights a fire in them.”
O’Rourke says he’s very impressed with the students’ knowledge of foundational medicine topics.
“MERIT does a great job giving them background,” says O’Rourke. “They provide a foundation, and after seeing patients the students ask really informed questions. They demonstrate their passion and excitement for health care. Their thoughtful questions show their interest and curiosity.”
O’Rourke says mentoring MERIT scholars enhances the joy in his work.
“The role I play is a small one, but it’s so fulfilling to work with passionate students who I know will make a tremendous impact. I hope to inspire them and get them excited about health care. I always look forward to following along to see what their next steps are.”
Western High School junior Adama Bockarie is in her second year in MERIT. She says she’s focused on her future.
“The hard work that I put in now will benefit me a lot in the future, and that motivates me every day.”
Bockarie says she has had opportunities to do research and present her findings at two different symposiums. Last summer, she participated in MERIT’s Art of Medicine internship, where she shadowed more than a dozen different health professionals and was able to ask them questions about their careers.
“It was so inspiring,” says Bockarie. “When I shadowed an anesthesiologist, I got so interested in the field that I chose that as my career goal.”
MERIT has also helped Bockarie boost other skills that will benefit her in a health care career.
“I’m someone who doesn’t usually speak publicly, but with MERIT’s help I feel more confident,” she says. “Time management was also a problem for me, but MERIT helps me keep track of what I’m doing and I’m able to manage my time better.”
Baltimore Polytechnic Institute junior Obi Nnabugwu says, “A true MERIT scholar is willing to put in as much work as possible to make sure that they are ahead of the game.”
While Nnabugwu has not yet chosen a career path, MERIT has helped her make connections and network with different people so she can explore her options.
“I get to shadow different clinical professionals, and I get help with college applications and SAT preparation. The moment that I found out the program was giving us all of these resources at no cost to me, I signed up immediately,” Nnabugwu says.
Baltimore City College High School junior Anthony Wilkins says he decided to apply for MERIT because he wanted to join a program where he could learn something new and contribute to change in his community.
“I wanted to be able to talk about the disparities that Baltimore faces and ways that we could change or improve them,” Wilkins says.
Wilkins participated in the Brancati Community Health Fellowship, in which scholars are partnered with community organizations in yearlong fellowships to improve health outcomes in Baltimore City.
“I want to be someone who speaks out about disadvantages that they see in a community and fights to make change,” Wilkins says. “A MERIT scholar is more than just intelligence, they have grit and a certain work ethic that pushes them to achieve whatever they believe is worth fighting for.”
MERIT scholars complete an average of more than four hours of homework each night over the summer to develop independent study skills necessary for success in higher education.
“The homework that they give you takes a long time to complete, and it has to meet their expectations,” Wilkins says. “The experience is, at times, a little stressful, but you look back and realize that you’ve been very productive. The small achievements make me happy because I know this effort comes from within. While it can feel like just more school, you do realize that this program is helping you build and grind toward your dream job.”
This year, for the sixth year in a row, 100% of MERIT scholars were accepted to four-year universities, with the senior class collectively earning over $10 million in college scholarships.