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Student National Medical Association

Empowering Diversity in Medicine

Two Black women standing outside smiling with their arms around each other.
School of Medicine students Destiny Frederick and Vashti Knight have found a home away from home within the Student National Medical Association, a student affinity group focused on supporting current and future underrepresented minority medical students.

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For nearly 60 years, the Student National Medical Association (SNMA) has focused on supporting underrepresented minority medical students across the United States. Through advocacy, mentorship, community and social events the SNMA chapter at University of California San Diego School of Medicine is growing and thriving.

“Going through your first year of medical school as a Black woman or a Black man is a very different thing,” said Destiny Frederick, first-year medical student and member of SNMA. “It's very different to see people who look like you, experiencing the same things as you. When I think of SNMA and what we're doing, I feel like it's a way for me to reach back and grab the people behind me from my community and say ‘hey you can come here, you can be here, you can be just like us. There are people who look like you, who will walk with you and teach you the ropes.’”

That idea of lifting others up and encouraging one another is at the heart of what the SNMA members strive to achieve. For first-year medical student Vashti Knight the sense of community formed before she even began her first class. Other student members of SNMA reached out to her before and during Second Look, an event for admitted students to visit the School of Medicine to get a better feel of the campus and ask any lingering questions before committing to attend.

“These (student) affinity organizations reached out,” said Knight. “It was my first experience, where people from the School of Medicine were reaching out to me. They were cordial. They looked like me. They cared. They introduced me to SNMA through social events and helped me get to know them. That familiarity felt good.”

The importance of community

The most recent entering class of medical students is the most diverse that School of Medicine has admitted with one-third being under-represented in medicine (Black, Latinx, Native American and Native Hawaiian). Over the last five years, the percentage of students who are Black has increased from 4 percent in 2019, to 11 percent in 2023.

“Historically we haven't always had a large number of Black students, so the organization could not take on too many activities,” said Knight. “We have about 15 of us this year, so we are making plans. I'm excited to see what we will do to help our community and help each other.”

For Dirk “DJ” Gaines, MD, faculty advisor for SNMA and associate director of diversity in medicine for the UC San Diego Internal Medicine Residency program, having someone who looked like him was really important when he was a medical student.

“Being the first physician in my family, I didn't really have anyone to turn to for advice when I was going through the process, especially during pre-med and medical school,” said Gaines. “People might think SNMA is just another organization. I don't think they realize how much of a lifeline it is for our medical students.”

According to the American Association of Medical Colleges, only about 5.7 percent of physicians in the U.S. are Black, while the overall population is 13.6 percent Black. For students like Knight and Frederick these numbers are cause for concern.

“Not a lot of people grew up like me and not a lot of people have what I have to offer,” said Frederick, who grew up in a low-income family and is the first in her family to attend college. “I didn’t have a traditional route to medicine. I'm older than the average applicant and I'm happy about that. I am here when I am supposed to be.”

Coming to medical school a little later in life helped prepare Frederick to face some of the issues that the Black community faces.

“I don't think that I would have been prepared if I had come in earlier in my life,” she said. “I think that now being able to do the things that I'm passionate about and showing people in my community that they can do it too provides them with knowledge and power to protect themselves, to demand proper health care and to know that what they're currently getting is insufficient.”

Growing community and support

A strong focus for SNMA is on mentoring undergraduate students who aspire to attend medical school. Providing support, hosting informational panels and opportunities to just ask questions have been rewarding for SNMA students. A recent Black in Medicine mixer brought together undergraduate students, medical students and School of Medicine alumni and faculty, to build connection and community.

“When I first got to medical school, I thought it was going to be so cutthroat, like everyone is going to be gunning for everyone else,” said Frederick. “Instead, I got people who will explain things to me. And let me come over and cry on the couch with a glass of wine and just be honest with me about what they're going through too. It makes me feel like I'm not alone in this and that my experience, even if it sometimes can feel very isolated, is actually a universal one.”

That feeling of connection is what motivates the students of SNMA to continue lifting each other up.

First-year medical students share their experiences with the Student National Medical Association.
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