As the end of the school year approaches, students and teachers around the world are still coming to grips with distance learning, home assignments, and virtual classrooms. The stay-at-home orders put in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic have turned public education completely on its head, and teachers, students, and parents are working to adapt.
For Ayishat Yussef, a 10th-grade student at City College, adapting to this “new normal” has been a challenge.
“It's hard to balance your home life with school,” she says. “Especially if you have siblings because you have to help them with their schoolwork, too. I had to make a schedule for myself to make sure I don’t get behind on my assignments.”
During this stressful and unprecedented time, Ayishat is grateful to have Kat Coburn, an MD/PhD student at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM), as her mentor.
“She’s really nice, and she's really helpful,” Ayishat says. “We're very comfortable with telling each other everything.”
Coburn, who’s from Grand Rapids, Mich., became Ayishat’s mentor five years ago through the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) CURE Scholars Program, a nationally recognized pilot program aimed at reducing racial disparities in public health by introducing a pipeline toward careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) to middle school students in West Baltimore. The program pairs students with long-term mentors who help guide the students through middle school, high school, college, and beyond.
The two were paired when Ayishat was in the sixth grade at the CURE Scholars’ annual White Coat Ceremony, which is now the traditional way of welcoming a new cohort of scholars to the program. Coburn was excited to become a mentor to Ayishat and several other scholars in the UMB CURE Scholars Program.
“I always knew that I wanted to get involved in a long-term mentoring program,” she says. “I wanted to hopefully open doors for the youth here in Baltimore the same way other people in my life had opened doors for me.”
Finding Common Ground
On the surface, a medical student from the Midwest may not have a lot in common with a Baltimore high school student; however, Coburn says she sees a lot of herself in Ayishat.
Ayishat dreams of going to medical school and becoming a pediatrician. Before joining UMB CURE, she didn’t think medical school was even an option for her.
“I had always thought I would be a teacher or an artist or something like that,” she says. “The main thing CURE changed for me was my mindset about my career choices.”
Coburn says she had a similar experience when deciding what career path she wanted to pursue.
“Growing up, I had always been told, ‘You really shouldn't think about going to medical school. You need to find a Plan B,’” she explains. “I was actually a hairdresser for three years before I went to undergrad.”
Coburn started her higher education journey at a community college before transferring to a four-year university. Now, she is pursuing an MD and a PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology at UMB. She says she owes a lot of her success to the mentors she had along the way.
“It’s the main reason why I'm a huge proponent of mentoring,” she says. “Having gone through a process where I really needed mentors in my life, I understand what it’s like to be a student who needs support and guidance. Now I really want to give back and to help students like Ayishat and show them that there are really cool possibilities in the STEM field for them.”
Mentoring During a Pandemic
Before the stay-at-home orders, the scholars and their mentors met two or three times a week for after-school programming, tutoring sessions, field trips, or just to spend time together. Now that all academic programming must be done online, the scholars and mentors need to find other ways to connect.
“It's been a heavy lift to continue our programming virtually,” says Shawdae Harrison, the mentor coordinator for UMB CURE. “Despite all of the challenges, I think our team is doing a great job helping our scholars move to the online platform and supporting them through that process.”
The UMB CURE team has been utilizing Google Classroom and Zoom video chat to keep the scholars caught up with their after-school STEM programming. Outside of the academics, the CURE team also uses those online platforms for fun. Earlier this month, the scholars and their mentors participated in a CURE Spirit Week during which they got together over Zoom to socialize, play games, and compete in friendly competitions.
“We always say in all messaging, ‘We're all learning together,’” says Gia Grier McGinnis, DrPH, MS, the executive director of UMB CURE. “Our staff and teachers and mentors are all doing a great job of keeping in touch with our scholars every week whether it’s through video chats, phone calls, or even just a text message.”
This is particularly important for the newest cohort of sixth-graders who were welcomed into the program with a White Coat Ceremony in October 2019. Azariah Jackson, a sixth-grade student at Green Street Academy, talks to her mentor, Alexis Green, a student at UMSOM, every Wednesday afternoon.
“Miss Alexis is very kind and she likes to support me by asking me how I'm doing,” Azariah says. “She always checks in to see if I need any help with my work or anything.”
Green, who is quarantined with her family in Brownsburg, Ind., hopes to be a source of encouragement for Azariah with their weekly phone calls.
“I think everyone is trying to find ways to support each other right now,” Green says. “And as a student, I can really empathize with what Azariah is going through having all of our classes moved online. Being able to really talk through some of those challenges that she's facing is important, and I'm really glad that we've been able to keep in contact.
“I think both of us are missing our normal routines and our friends, so it's nice that we can talk through that and how to deal with it and look forward to the future when things get back to normal together.”
Going Beyond Mentorship
In addition to connecting with the scholars weekly about their academics, the UMB CURE staff has been keeping in touch with the families of the scholars. Many of them are facing unprecedented hardships due to the restrictions put in place because of COVID-19.
“Our instructional staff has been doing an amazing job touching base with families and assessing food needs and providing resources,” Harrison says. “We have also set up a hotline for our CURE families so that if they need anything like access to food or technology, they can contact us with those needs.”
To address these needs, the UMB CURE team collaborated with the University’s Office of Philanthropy to set up the UMB CURE Scholars Emergency Support Fund. The money collected will help provide a host of essential services and resources such as groceries, rent, utilities, transportation, and more.
Anyone interested in contributing to this effort can visit the UMB CURE Scholars Emergency Support Fund website.
Addressing Racial Disparities and Injustice
The UMB CURE Scholars Program is approaching its five-year anniversary, a milestone that brings a mix of emotions and a great deal of reflection to program leaders; this year also marks five years since the Baltimore uprising following the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died in police custody in April 2015.
At that time, the CURE Scholars Program was already in its planning stages and was set to launch later that year. The initial vision for CURE began with former UMB President Jay A. Perman, MD, the current chancellor for the University System of Maryland, and Elsie Stines, DNP, CRNP, the assistant vice president of special projects and initiatives and the chair of UMB’s Diversity Advisory Council. The two had collaborated on a shared desire to diversify the health care field and bring a pipeline inclusion program to students in West Baltimore. They had just brought on Robin Saunders, EdD, MS, to lead the program as the founding executive director when the aftermath of Gray’s death swept through the city.
His death confirmed the paramount need for youth programs like UMB CURE that are geared toward underrepresented communities. Saunders remembers hearing this call to action and working with a fervor to get the program off the ground.
“With the passion and emotion of a mother of three black sons, five years ago I set out to create a comprehensive long-term science pipeline program that would right some of the wrongs in society and level the educational playing field for vulnerable black and brown people,” she says. “I don’t think it is by any coincidence that when I was hired to build this groundbreaking program, the city of Baltimore was shining a spotlight on the tremendous racial injustices and disparities in our society. Due to the unrest, even before the program officially launched, people in the city reached out to me asking, ‘How can I help [address racial injustices and disparities]?’ From those requests, our inaugural CURE Scholar Mentor Team was formed.”
Five years later, there is still an essential need for programs like UMB CURE as the nation grapples with yet another incident of police brutality toward the black community. On May 25, George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, died in Minneapolis after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. His killing has led to protests in Baltimore and across the country and world; four officers have been fired and charged in his death.
Floyd’s death, along with the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man who was shot and killed in a Georgia neighborhood while out for a jog in February by a former police officer and his son, and Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman who was killed in her home in Louisville, Ky., in March after being shot at least eight times by police executing a "no-knock" search warrant, are once again exposing the vicious cycle of police brutality, systematic racism, and injustice in the black community.
It is a painful and pivotal time for the nation, and it’s more important than ever for people to come together and take action.
“We are in the midst of an unprecedented racial crisis,” Saunders says. “Today, the entire world is shining an even brighter spotlight on continued racial injustices and disparities throughout our country. Now, more than ever, we need comprehensive programs like the UMB CURE Scholars Program throughout our country because we need widespread hope, cross-cultural understanding, and justice to bring about peace in our land.”
Five Years of STEM Mentorship
The UMB CURE Scholars Program officially launched in October 2015 with one cohort of 41 sixth-grade scholars from three West Baltimore Schools: Franklin Square Elementary/Middle School, Green Street Academy, and Southwest Baltimore Charter School. Since then, the program has expanded to over 100 scholars separated into five cohorts ranging from sixth to 10th grade.
“I am so proud that the UMB CURE Scholars Program continues to provide year-round STEM educational enrichment, wrap-around services, mentoring opportunities, and college preparation to over 100 middle and high school students and families in West Baltimore,” Saunders says.
Since joining the program, all of the scholars have seen vast improvements in their math and reading comprehension skills, written and verbal communication skills, and overall attendance. The scholars have also been given a number of amazing hands-on opportunities to meet and observe STEM professionals such as cancer researchers, lawyers, orthopedic surgeons, orthodontists, members of Congress, and more. All of these opportunities were used to fulfill the UMB CURE mission to excite and inspire Baltimore youth and show them that they have the potential to succeed in rewarding STEM careers.
“As a university-based program that serves West Baltimore, the CURE Program has made a serious commitment to invest in our young people, and we cannot afford to fail our goal of producing our next generation of leaders,” Grier McGinnis says.
As the program reaches its five-year anniversary, program leaders are looking forward to building out the next piece of the pipeline with 11th- and 12th-grade programming. This will include a new career navigation curriculum that will give the scholars the opportunity to shadow a professional in their career choice.
“It’s kind of crazy to look back and think about how far these scholars have come because I’ve seen them grow up before my eyes,” says Coburn, reflecting on her five years with the program. “It's cool to see Ayishat and the rest of the scholars flourish and grow into young adults. I've definitely seen Ayishat’s critical thinking skills increase. Her writing ability is just through the roof. It's been amazing to see that growth from sixth grade all the way through high school.”
Now, looking toward the future, Ayishat is excited to start applying to colleges. Her top two choices are Howard University and the University of Maryland, College Park. Coburn jokingly said to Ayishat, “You guys can't get rid of me even when you go to college. I will always be your mentor.”