U of T Medicine Launches Diversity Mentorship Program

Sep 15, 2017
Jim Oldfield

Professor Sharon Straus. Photo courtesy of St. Michael's HospitalProfessor Sharon Straus. Photo courtesy of St. Michael's Hospital

Professor Sharon Straus still remembers the first time she met Dr. David Sackett. She had just arrived at the University of Oxford for graduate training and Sackett, a global pioneer of evidence-based medicine, asked what she wanted to do with her career.

“He sat me down and listened, then told me he’d do everything he could to make my hopes a reality. It was a pretty powerful thing to hear,” says Straus, who holds the vice-chair of mentorship, equity and diversity in the Department of Medicine. “And he not only said it, he lived it. The only thing he ever asked was that I do the same for others.”

Straus keeps Sackett’s request — and his example — close to her heart. She has mentored many researchers and clinicians, and she recently volunteered as a mentor in the Faculty of Medicine’s new diversity mentorship program, which has matched 35 faculty with MD students who identify as racialized, differently abled or as members of other equity-seeking groups.

“I love interacting with mentees,” says Straus, who wrote a book on mentorship with Sackett and is also director of the knowledge translation program at St. Michael's Hospital. “There’s no better feeling than when your mentee gets a grant, wins an award or presents well at rounds. It keeps me engaged, and I get to see their careers develop over time.”

Straus says that while strong research evidence shows mentorship makes mentees more satisfied and more likely stay at their institutions, a large majority of medical students do not formally have mentors.  

Through Medicine’s diversity mentorship program, Straus is paired with a first-year student who immigrated to Canada as a teenager. “I was really pleased to hear about this program,” says the student, who prefers to remain anonymous. “After entering medicine, I didn’t see many others who look like me or who had a similar journey into this field, so there is a need.”

She hopes to learn how to navigate medical school and become a good clinician from Straus, who was the first in her family to attend university. The student had two faculty mentors during her undergraduate studies, when she also mentored high school students. She says consistent meetings were critical for making all those mentorships work.

More than 70 faculty have volunteered for the program, which requires regular contact with mentees and at least one in-person meeting per semester. But program coordinator and diversity strategist Anita Balakrishna says a few students are still unmatched. “We’ve had lots of interest from faculty, but not all under-represented groups are well-reflected in our roster of mentors,” she says.

Faculty members with lower socio-economic status backgrounds — a key criteria for some students in the program — are not easy to identify, Balakrishna notes. And the number of Muslim mentors has not quite kept pace with student demand.

But Balakrishna is optimistic that more faculty will come forward and that all students who applied to the program will find a match. She has been heartened by the support of allies in leadership roles throughout the faculty, from hospital executives to departmental chairs and the Faculty’s Dean, Trevor Young. And she says the program should improve as students and faculty provide feedback through regular surveys.

Also encouraging is that several mentees applied to the program because they want to help level the playing field for all students. “Some students want to work on issues of diversity and mentorship in medicine, and they want to connect with others doing that work,” says Balakrishna. “They’re passionate and want to learn about equity as well as medicine, which is really quite inspiring.”

Faculty and students interested in the diversity mentorship program can learn more on the Faculty’s inclusion and diversity page, or email anita.balakrishna@utoronto.ca.  


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