Why Xavier Remains No.1
Louisiana’s Xavier University maintains an enviable track record for sending more African American students to medical school than any other institution. How do they do it?
By Pearl Stewart
NEW ORLEANSDuring his first year at Harvard Medical School, Keith Amos was more than popular — he was needed. Amos quickly became the histology guru of his class. While his classmates struggled, Amos cruised through the microscopic study of tissue structure. “I had been taught histology so well in undergraduate school that, frankly, I already knew the material,” says Amos.So he ended up tutoring his classmates. “They asked me for help, and I was happy to do it,” says Amos. “I enjoyed telling my Harvard classmates that I had attended a small Black university.”Amos graduated in 1992 from Xavier University of Louisiana with a scholarship to Harvard. Now 30, he is a general surgery resident at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University Medical School in St. Louis. “Keith and students like him sell our program,” says Dr. J.W. Carmichael, the man credited with making Xavier’s name synonymous with pre-med. In 2000, for the sixth consecutive year, Xavier sent more African American students — 73 — to medical schools than did any other institution. The only Black, Catholic university in the country, Xavier is poised to extend its record in 2001. By mid-May, 73 Xavier graduates were headed to medical schools, and dozens more were entering graduate school in health-related fields.
Radical MovesXavier was the No. 1 university granting baccalaureate degrees to African American students in biological and life sciences in 1999-2000, graduating 162 total (see Black Issues, June 7). It also was No. 1 for African American graduates in the physical sciences, with 60 graduates. And according to Xavier officials, 93 percent of its pre-med students that enter medical school graduate. Although Carmichael insists that its successful alumni give Xavier its stellar reputation, the alumni and current students say Carmichael, the faculty and three decades of leadership by President Norman Francis are responsible.“From their first day at Xavier, the students who want to get into medical school are given the support and preparation they need,” Francis says. “They are told exactly what they need to do.” Actually, the process begins before the students even set foot in an Xavier classroom.In the weeks preceding freshmen orientation, Carmichael is busy contacting those who have indicated an interest in medicine, sending them information and establishing rapport. “I can’t say enough about Dr. Carmichael and everything he does for that program,” Amos says. But the real secret of the program’s success, Carmichael reveals, was a radical decision in recent years to standardize the freshman pre-med math and science curricula, a move that required unprecedented agreement and cooperation from the faculty. “The key to this change was the adoption of a philosophy that content, teaching methodology and rate of presentation should be determined by the department as a whole, rather than by the whim of individual lecturers or textbook authors,” says Carmichael. The pre-med departments also developed a series of workbooks that lay out exactly what students need to learn and contain sample problems and references to the textbook for those who need more information about the topic.Carmichael says that by agreeing to an overarching philosophy, individual faculty members gave up some autonomy in their classrooms for a common goal: to get students into medical school, and once there, to have them prepared to succeed.It was especially important that Xavier adapt to changes in the MCAT that required students to excel in verbal reasoning as well as the traditional subject areas. Francis and Carmichael are particularly pleased about Xavier students’ strong performance in verbal reasoning. “We feel that it’s because our students receive such a well-rounded foundation,” Francis says, noting the university’s broad core curriculum requirements.Carmichael attributes it to his requirements that students be well-read and conversant on topical issues. Thus the summer reading assignments. On the Xavier pre-med program’s Web site, <www.xupremed.com>, students view a timetable of tasks they need to complete in every phase of their undergraduate experience. The site also contains a link for parents, explaining to them what students should be doing during their summer vacations, although many pre-med students spend their summers conducting research around the country.One of those students, Alanna Morris, a 2001 summa cum laude graduate from Atlanta, will enter Harvard Medical School in the fall with two summer research projects under her belt — one at Columbia and another at the University of California-San Francisco (UCSF).“Xavier does a good job by giving you a starting point,” Morris says. “They post a list of summer opportunities and it’s up to the student to take it from there.” But Carmichael offers students more than just the list. He posts the names of Xavier graduates who worked on the projects in previous summers, so the interested students can contact them.In Morris’ case, the Columbia project — measuring the amounts of elemental carbon in the New York City air — related to her academic minor, chemistry. The UCSF project — an effort to create a fusion protein — required her to use her biology major. “I definitely think those experiences were helpful when I applied to medical school,” she says. Although she chose Harvard, where she received a scholarship, Morris also was accepted by six other medical schools, including Columbia, Johns Hopkins and Stanford.Amos, too, had an interest in research during his undergraduate years. That interest increased at Harvard, where Amos became a 1995-1996 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Research Scholar. He spent that year at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., returning to Harvard to earn his medical degree in 1997. Two years later, Amos received the prestigious Society of University Surgeons Resident Research Award, which included a $30,000 grant. Like Morris, Amos credits Xavier’s immersion tactics — offering a wealth of information and opportunities to its students — with helping him prepare for a career in medicine.“But it’s also more than that,” Amos says. “They bring in people who prepare you for the ‘real’ world of medicine, which includes a lot of things you can’t get from books.”That is the part of the pre-med program that the university president is most proud of. “We think our students leave here with more than an education in a particular discipline,” Francis explains. “We think they leave here with an understanding about what they are going to face out there, what the real challenges are.”“I was a Black student from a rural town in Louisiana, and I hadn’t seen much before I got to Xavier,” Amos recalls. But armed with the self-confidence he derived from Xavier’s pre-med program, Amos says he was able to adapt when he arrived at the top medical school in the country. “It helped that I was also academically prepared.”
A ‘Little Feeling’Some of the “real world” training includes outside experts such as Dr. James Flowers, who teaches a course, “The Minority Physician in Society,” at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Flowers was invited to Xavier to present a sampling of the course that he said was designed “to help minority pre-medical students get an idea of what it’s like out there.” As co-author of Flowers & Silver MCAT with Dr. Theodore Silver, he also shared tips on taking the exam.But Flowers told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that Xavier already provides its students with the tools necessary to get into medical school. Flowers described the university as “the Mecca for Black pre-medical students.”With such accolades pouring in, accompanied by favorable media attention and large grants for the sciences, there are bound to be dissenters in the other disciplines. The first to acknowledge this is Sybil Morial, Xavier’s vice president for communications. “There is a little feeling that the sciences get all the attention, so we do make a conscious effort to stress our other majors,” Morial says.It’s more than “a little feeling” among students, according to Lisa Robinson, a graduate student in the department of communications. “The students talk about it all the time. It’s understood that if you’re not a biology/pre-med major, your department won’t get the same kind of resources,” she says.Robinson admits the science programs’ stellar reputation benefits the university as a whole. “But,” she insists, “there shouldn’t be such a big difference. It’s really out of hand.”The perceived lack of attention to other disciplines may be attributed in part to the numbers. Half of the university’s 3,700 students are enrolled in the sciences. Over the past 10 years, Xavier’s enrollment in the biomedical sciences alone — biology, chemistry and psychology-pre-med — has tripled.Despite the emphasis on its pre-med program, Morial and Carmichael are quick to point out that while 73 graduates entered medical school last year, another 87 went into science-based graduate or professional schools. Last year, only one-third of Xavier’s 240 pre-med graduates did not go on to a graduate or professional program. One of those was Xavier’s own College of Pharmacy, which enrolls about 470 students. According to its Web site, 25 percent of the nation’s African American pharmacists are Xavier graduates, “who practice throughout the United States in careers that range from working for billion-dollar corporations to serving in clinics and hospitals in inner-city, rural and underserved communities.”Of the 160 students accepted into the pharmacy school in 2001, about 60 are Xavier graduates, most of them from a pre-pharmacy program with much of the intensity and rigor of pre-med. “I’d like to see more Xavier undergraduates entering the College of Pharmacy,” says its dean, Dr. Wayne Harris. In his case, there is no resentment of the attention the pre-med program receives. Instead, Harris, who came to Xavier this year, plans to “tap into its resources by attracting more pre-med students who don’t enter medical school. We haven’t done enough to get those students into the College of Pharmacy.” And although the numbers in non-science majors may not be as high, Morial says, “We’re doing very well preparing students for graduate school in all disciplines. From freshman year, our students are exposed to graduate school opportunities; in big universities you’re on your own.”
The Big Pay OffIt is clear, however, that Xavier’s glory primarily comes from the sciences. And that glory brings with it millions of dollars in grants from public and private sources. In 2000 alone, $16 million flowed in from public sources. The largest of that, $6.7 million from the Department of Health and Human Services, was targeted for chemistry, pharmacy and the Family and Community Life Center. Xavier’s biggest corporate donors are in the scientific and pharmaceutical industries. Between 1995 and 2000, they have funneled $84 million into the university.The enrollment explosion has fueled an alumni association replete with physicians and other health professionals. That should translate into a burgeoning endowment, but Francis says the boon hasn’t arrived yet. According to Xavier’s development office, its endowment is a modest $25 million, necessitating full-scale fund-raising ventures.Administrators note that the fairly recent growth of the pre-med program means that most of its graduates are still in medical school or residencies. “So many of our students begin their careers with huge debts from college loans,” Francis says. Another financial constraint is that many Xavier pre-med graduates are entering the service end of the profession. And that doesn’t bother the administrators.“We stress community service here, so that’s to be expected,” Carmichael says, making one of the few references to Xavier’s founding by a Catholic nun and its history of community outreach.The university’s largest private donor is the estate of an alum, Dr. Robert Browley, whose gifts have totaled nearly $421,000. But what Xavier’s administrators say they appreciate more than money are the frequent reports of their graduates rendering service to the indigent and neglected. One example is Dr. Regina Benjamin, a Xavier pre-med graduate (see Black Issues, Nov. 9, 2000), who is one of the few African American women to be inducted into the elite National Institute of Medicine. Benjamin, who received her medical degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, founded a health clinic in the early 1990s for poor, uninsured workers in rural Alabama. She moonlighted in local emergency rooms for a decade to support the clinic. Stories like Benjamin’s, which appeared in The New York Times in 1995, not only promote the university, they are also constant reminders that, as Carmichael put it, “Our students are making a difference in society.” A testament to Xavier’s emphasis on premedical education was the selection of Dr. Ben Carson as the university’s 2001 commencement speaker. When the renowned Black pediatric neurosurgeon met with summa cum laude graduates before the ceremony, he was a doctor among future doctors. The students shaking his hand in the pre-commencement gathering were Xavier’s top students. They also happened to be pre-med graduates.
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