Commencement 2023: Mentoring in Medicine Paves the Way for Medical School Success

The journey toward becoming a doctor is challenging but it can be especially difficult for students from groups historically underrepresented in science and medicine or for those who are socio-economically disadvantaged. They often face extra roadblocks along the way: fewer mentors to guide them toward careers in these fields or a lack of opportunity to volunteer, perform research, build a network, and shadow health professionals.

Lynne M. Holden, M.D.

Lynne M. Holden, M.D.

To break down those barriers, several pathway programs offered by Albert Einstein College of Medicine and its partner institutions connect students to valuable academic and clinical resources. One such program is Mentoring in Medicine, which offers academic enrichment, leadership development, civic engagement opportunities, and mentoring for disadvantaged and low-income students starting in elementary school and continuing through medical school. The goal of the program is to inspire students to become healthcare professionals and equip them with skills and resources they need to succeed.

“Exceptional physicians come from everywhere, from all backgrounds, so we have to ensure everyone has the opportunities and support they need to succeed,” says Lynne Holden, M.D., Einstein’s senior associate dean for diversity and inclusion who co-founded Mentoring in Medicine in 2006. “It’s critical to build and grow new on-ramps to this deeply rewarding career, and make sure there are mentors before, during, and after medical school to help diversify the healthcare workforce and build inclusive communities where everyone can thrive.”

Dr. Holden, who is also a professor of emergency medicine at Einstein and an emergency medicine physician at Montefiore, speaks from personal experience. “I would not be where I am without the help of six pathway programs,” she says. “Pathway programs are not only near and dear to my heart, but they're integral for academic enrichment and exposure to research and experiential learning.”

In 2009, Mentoring in Medicine launched its Medical Pathway Program with initial funding from the Associated Medical Schools of New York—517 students, or 92%, of those who applied after completing the program have been accepted into medical school. Proof of the program’s success also can be found in Einstein’s Class of 2023, which include several students who reached their goal of becoming physicians this month with the assistance of Mentoring in Medicine and Dr. Holden.

Eric Acosta: “Stick with Me”

Eric Acosta says he wanted to attend medical school since he was about 5 years old. During high school, a clearer path to becoming a doctor emerged. That’s when he heard his homeroom loudspeaker announce an after-school meeting of Mentoring in Medicine. Mr. Acosta went to the session, lured mostly by the prospect of joining his friends for free pizza. By the time the meeting ended, he was certain he would attend more sessions and would be able to do the things the guest speakers said were required for admission to medical school.

However, several years later, his college adviser was blunt in delivering what he recalls as “heartbreaking news.” She told him that his grades and lack of extracurricular activities meant he was not going to achieve his medical school goal. Determined to pursue his goal, he rejoined Mentoring in Medicine, started to volunteer in a medical clinic, and undertook a scientific research project.

He also reconnected with Dr. Holden, five years after he first met her, and she urged him to “stick with me” and attend an MCAT boot camp program. “I said, ‘OK, whatever you tell me to do I will do if you think that I have a chance at medical school,’” Mr. Acosta recalls. “And she said, ‘You have more than a chance.’”

He began volunteering in a second program, spending two or three overnight shifts a week in the Montefiore emergency department. He also became a Mentoring in Medicine program coordinator, driving to high schools in the Bronx and Harlem to talk to younger students about a career as a physician. He hadn’t completed his own medical school application, but viewed it as vital preparation for achieving that goal.

His efforts paid off: Mr. Acosta was accepted at Einstein with the stipulation that he first had to complete a post-baccalaureate program at City College of New York with at least a 3.5 grade-point average. By 2019, he was a first-year medical student. The “fire hose” of the curriculum and workload quickly challenged him, but he says the “saints” on the Einstein faculty and staff were always there to provide guidance, banish inner doubts, and help him navigate through rough times.

On Match Day he learned he would be a pediatrics resident at Mount Sinai. He hopes to practice pediatric sports medicine and also sees himself as a future mentor. “I want to be the person who tells someone else that you can do what you want to do. My biggest dream in life is to be a Dr. Holden for someone else.”

He adds: “Look at my class: We have people from Mentoring in Medicine who matched to emergency medicine, radiology, obstetrics, pediatrics, internal medicine—there are so many different fields we’re spreading into and hopefully creating more pathways for others.”

Errol Hunte: “Support Your Juniors”

Most college seniors sleep in on Saturdays, but for a good part of his senior year at Brooklyn College, Errol Hunte woke up by 6 a.m. to catch a subway train to the Bronx. Those trips to Mentoring in Medicine sessions at Lehman College were instrumental in helping him prepare for an eventual medical school application.

“I got on the med school train a little late,” says Mr. Hunte, who thought he might want to earn a Ph.D. degree but later found he preferred interacting with patients.

Mentoring in Medicine’s Medical Pathway Program provided MCAT practice and more, including helpful advice on how to navigate what it feels like to be the only person of a particular background in a medical setting. Today, he recognizes that, along with get-togethers a few years later with older Einstein students, the program dispelled any doubt that he might have had about his abilities.

The sessions also provided worthwhile lessons in reinforcing a sense of belonging. “Now I’m better able to navigate all of these situations where I’m often the only Caribbean or Black person in a space,” says Mr. Hunte, who starts a general surgery residency at Brown University-Rhode Island Hospital next month. “And it also showed me the value of what it is to be in those spaces.”

Mr. Hunte spent two years after college as an AmeriCorps tutor for a Newark, NJ charter school before his acceptance to Einstein. He made his decision to attend after he was invited back for a “second look” for accepted students. At a “Real Talk” session sponsored by the office of admissions, where current Einstein students from groups traditional underrepresented in medicine speak freely and candidly with prospective students, he recalls hearing an upperclassman speak about the rewards of working with diverse populations in the Bronx.

“That made me think that I would definitely like to learn in a place where I could feel that strong sense of community with my patients,” he says. “When I went to interview at other places, I didn’t see that same sense or connection to patients they were working with.”

Today, he is grateful for the support of his mentors, including older students who shared their experiences at informal get-togethers sponsored by the office of diversity and inclusion.

“You would go as a first year and you’d see second and third years and they could tell you ‘This is how I studied, this is how I succeeded in this course, Here’s a tip or trick you can use.’ It was great knowing that you had that level of support—not just from people who were at your level and going through this with you, but from people who had done it.”

Looking forward, he wants to be involved in medical education, recalling the words of Jack Liu, M.D. ’20, a general surgery resident at Jacobi who frequently reminded his team to “always support your juniors.”

Mr. Hunte says: “Wherever you are, you’ll have juniors coming up behind you. You need to make sure you’re helping them out, helping guide them through the process. I want to be there for someone else who’s coming up and make sure they can find the support they need.”

Abel Infante: “You Have Everything You Need”

Abel Infante’s longtime medical school dreams might have remained unfulfilled if not for a fortuitous run-in with a familiar face at a Red Lobster restaurant. Mr. Infante was working as a waiter when Dr. Holden and her husband, a Mentoring in Medicine co-founder, walked in.

He had first met Dr. Holden—by chance—a few years earlier when a gym buddy, Dr. Derek Bazemore, who happened to be an emergency medicine resident working with her, introduced them. Mr. Infante later attended some Mentoring in Medicine sessions Dr. Holden organized because he wanted to learn how he could pursue a medical career. Dr. Holden and her husband, Andrew Morrison, also hosted regular “empowerment seminars” where healthcare providers from underrepresented backgrounds would share success stories about overcoming hardships and adversity.

When Dr. Holden recognized him at the restaurant, they talked about Mr. Infante’s past interest in applying to medical school. “I'm not sure if I can do this,” he told her. He had previously taken a break from City College of New York. Medical school seemed like a distant, almost unreachable goal, and he was unsure of his potential. “I was trying to work,” he told her, “and just live my life.”

“You can do this,” Dr. Holden replied. “Let’s talk. Here’s my number, give me a call. If you want to do it, I’m here to help you.”

Along with a generous tip, she gave him two things that were even more valuable: her vote of confidence and one of the MCAT prep books she stored in the trunk of her car. After graduating later that year with a psychology degree, he enrolled at Lehman College to take additional science courses, began studying for the MCAT, and started regularly attending meetings of Bronx Community Health Leaders (BxCHL), a college-student-led peer support group that provides mentorship, engages in community service, and helps develop essential leadership skills.

“I thought it was too good to be true,” Mr. Infante says, referring to BxCHL’s professional development and mentorship. “Medical students, residents, and attending physicians would spend time with us, answering questions and sharing their stories. It was an opportunity to shadow physicians in the clinic, take on leadership roles, participate in research and build a social and professional network. The program was building a community to ensure that none of us was doing anything alone.”

Exceptional physicians come from everywhere, from all backgrounds, so we have to ensure everyone has the opportunities and support they need to succeed.

Lynne Holden, M.D.

Mr. Infante finally felt closer to realizing an ambition that began when, at age 12, he underwent surgery, radiation and chemotherapy treatments for Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore. The experience sparked his interest in becoming a healer, just like his own doctors. “It all seemed really cool to me, how physicians could save your life with what they know,” he says.

At BxCHL meetings, he says Einstein students and others helped him overcome “imposter syndrome” as he began the medical school application process. He was accepted to Einstein with the condition that he first successfully complete a nine-month post-baccalaureate program. In August 2019, he started at Einstein and shadowed one of BxCHL’s founders, Juan Robles, M.D., ‘11, associate professor of family and social medicine at Einstein and attending physician in the Family Health Center at Montefiore.

“I’m 100,000% sure I wouldn’t be where I am if not for Dr. Holden and for Dr. Robles,” he says. “I remember Dr. Robles’ words very clearly: He told me, ‘You have everything you need, you can do this and I'm going be here to help you along the way.’ It was everything I needed—the encouragement and support.”

He has served as a mentor for first- and second-year Einstein students and volunteered in both Mentoring in Medicine and Bronx Community Health Leaders as well as at the Einstein Community Health Outreach (ECHO) free clinic and in the Bronx Oncology Living Daily (BOLD) program, where he provided support and guidance to cancer patients.

“I'm a very faithful person, and I believe that things happen for a reason,” he says. “All of the experiences I’ve had, both good and bad, have prepared me to become a physician that serves and inspires others.”

Mr. Infante will begin a residency in emergency medicine in June at New York Presbyterian Hospital-Columbia and Cornell. Among the things he plans to keep in the trunk of his car: an MCAT prep book.