The Medical School of Dreams and Dreamers: One Year Later

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By: Mark G. Kuczewski, PhD, and Linda Brubaker, MD, MS

A year ago, we began the school year with seven “Dreamers” among our first-year medical school class. These students earned admission by competing on a level playing field for a seat in the Class of 2018. Here on AM Rounds, we described our reasons for becoming the first medical school to welcome applications from undocumented immigrants who are eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. As we now have a full year of experience teaching and working with these students, many are asking us what we’ve learned. We’re pleased to report three things.

First, our learning environment is richer than ever. While social justice motivated us to welcome these applicants, our school has greatly benefited from the increased diversity. The seven Dreamer students got their academic bearings quickly and have emerged as student leaders. Several have become the president of a student organization, and some have participated in related national activities. They have helped us develop co-curricular activities, such as an educational immersion trip to the Arizona-Mexico border with Borderlinks. One awe-inspiring moment occurred last fall during a Skype session between two of our Dreamer students and some “border children” in a detention center in Texas. Our students were able to connect with these children in a way that most others simply could not. They also have proven to be able and articulate spokespersons in providing educational forums to discuss these issues with their peers. Many in our student body have gained the knowledge and sensitivity that will enable them to serve immigrant patients, families, and communities much better in the future.

Second, success has brought more success–we welcomed 14 new Dreamer students to the Class of 2019. Clearly we are becoming known as a welcoming environment in which all students are viewed as bringing important assets to the school and to the medical profession. However, the number of Dreamers who continue to be attracted to our school (more than 70% of all Dreamer students at US medical schools are enrolled at our school) are motivated by our commitment to finding them financial support, as students of DACA status are unable to access federal loans to fund their medical education. Our first class of Dreamer students received tuition loans from our state’s infrastructure bank, the Illinois Finance Authority (IFA), in exchange for future years of service, and they received support for living expenses from the school’s financial aid funds.

Finally, we have learned that advocacy is a demanding job that requires constant diplomacy and attention by many at the highest levels of the administration of our school and university. This year, the IFA provided loans to five incoming Dreamer students. We are fortunate to have also found a new partner in Trinity Health. Inspired by their values and commitment to socially responsible community investment, Trinity is providing loans to seven of our Dreamer students. Such a commitment is an enormous financial undertaking and will be near-impossible to sustain at such a level for future cohorts. We have already begun seeking new sources of funds for Dreamer students in the Class of 2020. We must remain committed advocates as we start anew this process each year.

In sum, the excitement within our medical school continues to grow. We believe that we have only begun to glimpse the benefits that Dreamer students will bring to medical education, the medical profession, and society. They are highly qualified and will meaningfully contribute to the much-needed diversification of our health care workforce. But gaining the benefits of their talents will require significant personal and institutional commitment. We anticipate that the number of successful applicants will continue to grow over the next few years, so new financial aid resources must be found. We simply cannot lose these talented and qualified individuals from the future physician workforce and the patients they will serve.

 

Dr. Kuczewski is the Fr. Michael I. English Professor of Medical Ethics; director, Neiswanger Institute for Bioethics and Health Policy; and chair, Department of Medical Education, Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.

Dr. Brubaker is dean, chief diversity officer, and professor of obstetrics and gynecology and urology, Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.

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