Melanie Russell’s path to medical school began in the 6th grade with a request to come to the guidance counselor’s office at the Cleveland School of the Arts. “I didn’t know why I was asked to come to the office; I thought I was in trouble!” Instead, Melanie was told about the Young Scholars Program (YSP) at The Ohio State University Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI) that provides an opportunity for academically talented first-generation students with demonstrated financial need to advance their goal of pursuing higher education. Scholars in good standing upon graduation receive an appropriate financial aid package to attend Ohio State, along with the skills and support needed to succeed in college. “YSP prepared me for college in every way: life skills, financial aid, budgeting, SAT and ACT preparation, things that weren’t covered in high school.”
Once Melanie arrived at Ohio State, the YSP support continued. “I think the most beneficial part in coming to Ohio State was knowing that I had a network. I already had this set group of YSP friends. I just felt like I had somebody to talk to no matter what problem I was facing. Whatever time of day it was, I knew that YSP would be there in some way, shape, or form.”
In addition to her circle of friends, Melanie also had mentors such as Keith Lofton, the Program Coordinator at the time for the Cleveland YSP program, Victoria Dunn, and James L. Moore, PhD. “I remember one day just talking to (Victoria) because I felt so defeated. I was like, ‘I can’t do this; I’m not going to make it. I don’t know what to do.’ A doctor was the only thing I wanted to be.” Ms. Dunn, who was the director for ODI’s Leadership Initiative for Women of Color, gave Melanie some very good advice: “Don’t give up. Don’t ever, ever give up, no matter what. And if you don’t know the way, don’t be afraid to ask for help.” And asking for help was how Melanie met Dr. Moore, the director of the Bell National Resource Center on the African American Male, also housed within ODI. “He told me, ‘Melanie, we are going to get you together.’ And after that meeting, I got it together!”
Dr. Moore also got Melanie interested in undergraduate research by introducing her to “an amazing mentor,” T.M. Ayodele “Ayo” Adesanya, who is an MD/PhD student at Ohio State. Working with Ayo on cardiovascular disease and repairing heart valves gave Melanie an appreciation for research. “You see all of these procedures, but you don’t really know where they came from. I actually got to see that it all starts in the lab, and that gave me a huge appreciation for researchers and the things that they do.” And Ayo has done more than foster Melanie’s appreciation of research; he’s taken her under his wing, helping her through the entire med school application process.
Melanie graduated from Ohio State in December 2015 with degree in biology. That degree would help her when she went into medicine, a field Melanie’s wanted to study since she was a child. “My grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and although my mom was my best friend, my grandma was my partner in crime. She got me out of all trouble, brought me all the junk food, got me whatever, whenever.” When her grandmother was diagnosed, Melanie was 12 years old. She was devastated and wanted to understand what has happening. “I was so young that people didn’t really want to explain it to me, but I just had so many questions. I think that initially sparked my interest, and so I started researching Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s. I just got so intrigued, and I told my Mom that she needed to put me in the Cleveland School of Science and Medicine. It just kind of continued to grow from there.”
When it came to deciding where she would like to continue her graduate studies, Melanie knew that she wanted to study medicine at Ohio State. “I always felt like Ohio State chose me. It started with that one meeting with my guidance counselor, and then I met Keith, fell in love with the program and thought, ‘This is amazing.’”
The traditional route to a career in medicine requires finishing an undergraduate degree then applying to medical school. As she neared graduation, Melanie felt that she wasn’t quite ready to begin medical school. “I had some tough times as an undergrad, so I knew that my GPA wasn’t going to be competitive enough to allow me to go straight through. And even if I did go straight through, I felt that I didn’t really comprehend the classes I had taken even though I passed them. Medical school is very rigorous, and I had to be as totally prepared as I could possibly be.”
That’s where Ohio State’s MEDPATH program stepped in, a program one of her mentors mentioned to Melanie. The program’s aim is “to increase the number of underrepresented minorities and students from educationally and/or socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds who enter medical school and who show evidence of a commitment to practice in a medically underserved community.” The real focus of the program, Melanie says, is to guarantee that students have a strong scientific foundation so that when they matriculate to medical school, they will be ready and they will be prepared.
In order to be accepted into the program, MEDPATH applicants must first submit a completed American Medical College Application Service application that lists the Ohio State College of Medicine as a school selection and an Ohio State College of Medicine Secondary Application. Finally, selected applicants are referred to the MEDPATH program, where they complete yet another application as well as interview with the College of Medicine Admissions Committee. Getting accepted into MEDAPTH wasn’t easy; Melanie stated that they selected 100 people to apply, chose 30 to interview, and only 15 were admitted.
Melanie started the MEDPATH program in August 2016 and will finish in July 2016. She sees MEDPATH as the graduate component of YSP. In her first semester, Melanie took graduate level courses such as physiology and immunology. But, she says, Spring Semester was when things “kind of got tough.” Melanie had a full course load – again, graduate level classes – but in addition, she had Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) prep. From Monday through Thursday, Melanie took part in a three-hour MCAT class, usually from 6-9 p.m. Every Saturday, she took practice MCAT exams – which are seven hours long – and would review them afterwards.
Her MEDPATH class took the MCAT exam in May. Now that Melanie has passed that exam, she is doing the pre-entry program, which consists of anatomy labs and learning about the human body in-depth and will matriculate into The Ohio State University College of Medicine class of 2021. Melanie is also taking a biochemistry immunology class, which will get her ready for Foundations I in medical school.
For much of what has happened to her academically, Melanie credits her mom and YSP. “The one person who kept telling me ‘You can!’ was my mom. She motivates me. She calls me every day, saying ‘Good morning, Dr. Russell!’ I owe her and YSP so much. As a first-generation college student, it’s super hard and even discouraging to feel like I have this dream that’s so large, and nobody has done it before me. So it puts a lot a pressure on you. But YSP is here to help. They encourage you to continue on this dream, and they make sure that you accomplish it.”