First Generation Scholars

In 2008, a first-year medical student named Jennifer Ling developed a program called the First Generation College Application Essay Writing and Scholarship Program, under the sponsorship of Students for Equal Opportunity in Medicine (SEOM). There were six students in the program, all of whom enrolled seeking help with their college application essays.

Three years later, Jennifer’s program merged with the Mount Sinai Scholars Program, a tutoring program originally sponsored by Mount Sinai’s Department of Health Education. The combined program was renamed the First Generation Scholars Program, and continues as an SEOM-sponsored program. Since then, the program has grown to include more than sixty students and mentors.

First Generation Scholars operates for ten weeks between October and December. High school students are recruited from East Harlem, and meet once a week with a Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai medical student to learn about and begin the daunting process of applying to college. During the past year, the program was lead by three second-year medical students—Lenard Babus, Gabrielle Phillip, and Evan Pulvers.

All three initially became involved in the program as first-year medical students. Phillip had known she wanted to participate since she first heard about the program. As a college student, Phillip was involved with a similar program which recruited girls from underserved areas and provided weekly workshops that focused on women’s education and empowerment. Her interest was piqued when she heard about First Generation Scholars.

During their first months as leaders, Phillip, Babus and Pulvers were able to facilitate the program’s growth. In the past, First Generation Scholars functioned primarily as a college essay mentoring program that culminated in an essay scholarship contest. Sinai mentors would grant two students with the best essays $500 awards. Although the results were often encouraging (the majority of the students completed their essays by the end of the program), it was clear to this year’s leaders that the students needed more support. “These kids would graduate our program with fantastic essays,” Phillip told me, “and then never apply to college”. Without resources to help them through the application process (e.g. to teach them how to ask for and submit recommendations, to decide when to take the SATs) many of the students never completed their applications.

To address these issues, Phillip, Babus and Pulvers decided to expand the program. At each student/mentor meeting, Sinai mentors helped their scholars create weekly to-do lists in order to better organize the application process. Phillip, Babus and Pulvers also added a number of information sessions regarding the common college application and the SATs. Additionally, they told the students to bring copies of their high school transcripts to their first mentoring sessions. Provided with the transcripts, the Sinai mentors were better able to guide the students and help them create realistic college lists. “Most often,” Phillip told me with a smile, “it isn’t that the students are reaching too high. They have no idea how amazing they are. They aren’t reaching high enough.” The three leaders also altered the scholarship component of the program, distributing smaller prizes to more students rather than bigger prizes to only two, in the hopes of providing more motivation. Finally, they coordinated two special events over the course of the ten weeks: first, a trip to Columbia University, complete with a guided tour by two current Sinai students/Columbia alumnai; second, a panel discussion with a number of first and second-year medical students focused on their experiences in college, the obstacles they faced when applying to college, and other aspects of their paths toward medical school.

The success of these many changes is yet to be calculated (college acceptances don’t come out for a few more weeks), but Phillip, Babus and Pulvers have great confidence in their program and in their scholars. In December, once essays were completed and applications were well on their way to submission, First Generations Scholars hosted a large banquet dinner for the scholars and their parents. Phillip, Babus and Pulvers handed out awards and graduation certificates, and brought in speakers to talk about different career options, financial aid, and research opportunities. “It’s the best part of the program,” Babus says, “when you see the smiles on the students’ faces after they are recognized for all their hard work.” This year, the program had approximately thirty students. Twenty-five of them graduated with a completed essay – one of the highest numbers the program has ever seen. This year’s leaders have recruited five new leaders for next year in order to tackle the large amount of work: fundraising; establishing connections with local community groups and high schools; recruiting mentors to help with college applications and essays.

However, First Generation Scholars still has a long way to go. “There are still a lot of gaps that we haven’t been able to address,” Babus told me, referring most specifically to SAT preparation. “By the time the students enter the program, there’s only so much SAT work we can do. It can be really challenging.” Ultimately, the goal is to catch these kids earlier. The Sinai Umbrella Mentorship Organization, founded just a few weeks ago, aims to increase coordination among the various student mentor groups at Sinai, many of which are targeted to kids in elementary school or junior high. The idea is to create a cohort of students who are guided and mentored by Sinai students from a relatively young age. The hope is that by the time these students enter the First Generations Scholars program, they will be better prepared to apply to college. In the meantime, the First Generation Scholars program has been working with the Union Settlement Association (a community center in East Harlem), and hopes that they will be able to help supplement the First Generation Scholars program with additional tutoring resources and SAT preparation classes.

It was clear by the end of my conversation with the leaders of First Generation Scholars, that the program means a lot to them. “Sinai has such a strong focus on improving the physical health of the residents of East Harlem,” Babus told me, “but isn’t it just as important to support the education and development of the members of this community?” The First Generation Scholars program focuses on essay writing and college applications, but at its heart, it’s about the time spent one-on-one with the high school students. “We’re guaranteed to talk about other things,” Babus says – things, he clarifies, that have nothing to do with college essays and teacher recommendations. “Over the course of ten weeks, strong relationships develop, and mentors can have meaningful impacts on their students’ lives.” Phillip interjects, “also, there’s the idea that, of the thirty kids, a few may be inspired by our interests in science and medicine, that a few may be touched by that. Then these kids may one day become doctors and be able to act as their own advocates for their own community.”

Unsurprisingly, these young students also have a big impact on their mentors. “Interacting with our students and hearing their stories – it’s one thing to be aware of the health statistics of East Harlem,” Babus says, “but actually working with students gives us a real appreciation of what it means to be an East Harlem resident.” As any Sinai student understands, it can be very easy to remain sequestered in Aron Hall and the Levy Library and largely ignore what’s happening just a few blocks away.  Participating in First Generations Scholars makes that impossible. “It not only makes us pay attention to what’s happening a few blocks north of us,” Babus told me, “it makes us part of it.”

This article was written by Alison Thaler, first-year medical student, and first published in The Rossi: Medical Student Quarterly Report.

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