Written by Robin Lally | Rutgers Today
This story originally appeared May 2 in Rutgers Today.
Kevin Carolina wants to become a physician so people like his grandfather, his barber and other Black men he knows can gain trust in the medical community and no longer get sick and die prematurely.
“My grandfather thought he could deal with his diabetes without regularly seeing a doctor because the doctor wasn’t someone who looked like him or he thought he could trust,” said Carolina, who is graduating with a public health degree from the Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences and the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy and will start medical school in July. “My barber felt the same and nearly died from COVID-19. He still refuses to get vaccinated.”
Born and raised in Piscataway, the 22-year-old is the son of a registered nurse. His mother’s dedication to keeping people healthy inspired Carolina, who at first thought he would follow in her footsteps.
But that changed when Carolina was a junior in high school and learned from a report published by the Association of American Medical Colleges, that more Black men applied to medical school in 1978 than in 2014. The report suggested that the decline in the number of Black men in medicine would have a negative effect on the health outcomes of Black Americans.
“It was really disheartening and I knew that something needed to change,” said Carolina. Jokingly, Carolina added, “My mother gave me her support and told me that since I no longer wanted to be a nurse, being a doctor was the next best thing.”
While the enrollment of minority students entering medical school is increasing, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, only 5 percent of doctors in the United States are Black, and 5.8 percent identified as Latinx, according to its latest data. Less than 3 percent of practicing physicians in the U.S. are Black men.
Carolina, who will attend Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, has made it part of his mission to try to increase the number of underrepresented minority men in medicine.
“As I continued taking pre-med classes, I noticed the number of minority men who may have considered pursuing this career path continued to get smaller over the years,” Carolina said. “I believed that minority men pursuing the pre-med path had unique social and academic support needs that were not being met on campus, and there needed to be a network that would be there for them when times got tough.”
With the help of three friends, he started the Minority Men in Medicine at Rutgers. The purpose of the organization is to provide an academic and social support network to increase the number of underrepresented minority men matriculating into medical school.
During the COVID-19 pandemic – which sent students in New Jersey from the classroom to virtual learning – Carolina worked to keep his classmates engaged. When the group of about a dozen minority students could no longer participate in shadowing experiences with physicians, Carolina and his academic colleagues launched a virtual speakers series highlighting physicians from various medical and surgical specialties to share “words of wisdom.”
Carolina also used social media to connect student members of Minority Men in Medicine with current medical students and physicians of color to offer support when the group couldn’t meet in person.
“We believed that representation was important. Seeing individuals who looked like us who were successful in medicine motivated us not to give up, despite the challenges we faced on our paths to becoming physicians,” said Carolina.
Kamal Khan, director of the Office for Diversity and Academic Success in the Sciences (ODASIS) at Rutgers, which works to increase the recruitment and academic success of underrepresented and disadvantaged students interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers, called Carolina an “incredibly hard worker and leader among his peers.”
“When Kevin speaks to people he leaves a lasting impression, conducting himself with the perfect blend of professionalism and charisma,” said Khan, who got to know Carolina, through ODASIS and Access Med, a partnership between Rutgers, Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and Rutgers New Jersey Medical School that serves as a pipeline to medical school and provides academic enrichment, support and advice. “I truly believe Kevin will succeed and flourish as a leader within our next generation of physicians.”
Carolina, who will graduate with a 3.96 grade point average and a laundry list of academic awards and accolades, has spent time researching the social and structural determinants of health – magnified during the COVID-19 pandemic – to help improve the health and quality of life in economically disadvantaged communities.
While he is thinking of becoming a cardiologist, Carolina is not certain exactly what field of medicine he will pursue. What is certain, he says, is that he not only wants to practice medicine in an underserved community, but also wants to be a physician who takes an active part in the community where he practices.
“I recognize that communities of color do not enjoy a trusting relationship with the health care system. Unfortunately, the lack of trust can serve as a barrier that prevents individuals from seeking the necessary care to save their lives,” Carolina said. “As a future physician, I am committed to improving the health outcomes through community engagement and facilitating trusting relationships between communities of color and the health care system.”