TouroCOM Opens New Pathways for Minorities: Jemima Akinsanya Launches COMPASS

In the spring of 2013, Jemima Akinsanya, then a first-year student at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine (TouroCOM), was tutoring a local high school sophomore through MedAchieve, an after-school medical science enrichment program based in Harlem, when she had an insight. This young student was bright and ambitious; however, Akinsanya realized, perhaps she lacked a clear road map to achieve her goals.

“After talking with her, it occurred to me: ‘What if we started a program to mentor students and help guide them into medical school?’” Akinsanya recalls.

Around the same time, she had also been speaking with fellow classmates about their paths to medical school. These conversations illuminated for her some of the difficulties that minority students experience getting useful guidance on the college and med school path. Many either don’t know physicians or even that osteopathic medicine is an option.

Akinsanya thought starting a program to help minority students might also include those already enrolled at TouroCOM, to give them a stronger support system. With this in mind, the seeds of COMPASS, which stands for “Creating Osteopathic Minority Physicians who Achieve Scholastic Success,” were planted.

Akinsanya turned to her advisor, Tipsuda Junsanto-Bahri, M.D., assistant professor of internal medicine and pathology, who was impressed by her drive to give back.

“I said, ‘Wow.’ This is a young woman who has plenty on her plate, in terms of studying, and she wants to start this program to help others. She’s a true force, always moving forward,” says Dr. Junsanto-Bahri.

Akinsanya, who was born in Lagos, Nigeria and moved to the United States when she was one year old, was an undergraduate biology major, with a double minor in chemistry and psychology, at Montclair State University.

After graduation, Akinsanya began researching osteopathic programs. She was impressed by TouroCOM’s commitment to practicing medicine in underserved communities. Touro also offered the option to earn a master’s degree that could lead into the medical school program. She says, “This was exactly what I wanted.”

Akinsanya’s interest in bringing quality medical care to underserved communities first crystallized when she was sixteen years old and her grandfather broke his hip. Living in Nigeria, her grandfather did not have access to advanced medical care. Though eventually he came to the U.S. for better care, his subsequent deterioration made a huge impact on Akinsanya, who then decided to pursue a pre-med path.

After graduation from Montclair, she enrolled in the Master of Science in Interdisciplinary Studies in Biological and Physical Sciences degree program at TouroCOM, which would be crucial to her later success. “That was a very important year,” she says. “It helped me learn how I study best and gave me a solid foundation going into my first year of the DO program.”

By the time she had the motivation to start a new student-led recruitment initiative in her first year of the DO program, Akinsanya was already an established member of the TouroCOM community. With Dr. Junsanto- Bahri’s support, Akinsanya approached Dean Robert Goldberg, DO, and Emil Ruiz, senior director of admissions at TouroCOM. Both administrators gave her the green light.

The need for the recruitment work was great. Nationwide, only six percent of osteopathic doctors were minorities. This is one of the reasons TouroCOM made an institutional commitment to recruit minorities and promote cultural competency for all physicians-to-be. To address the latter issue, Jeffrey Gardere, Ph.D., who teaches a cultural competency course, brings into the classroom actual patients to explain how their experiences could have been improved.

Ruiz was so impressed with Akinsanya’s ideas that he offered to become the group’s advisor.

“Jemima—or ‘Mima’ as we call her—is a natural leader who has continually demonstrated a passion for cultural awareness that speaks to the heart of TouroCOM’s mission,” says Ruiz. “COMPASS was formed in order to provide a support group for TouroCOM minority students and help promote osteopathic medicine to aspiring medical school students, who often do not realize that through diligence, hard work and unparalleled motivation, they, too, can become physicians who go on to care for their communities.”

With the support of administrators, Akinsanya and a group of her peers got to work, supporting TouroCOM’s already strong recruitment efforts. Their first official outing was last March, to a medical school fair at City College of New York, at which the medical students spoke with undergraduates one-on-one and even addressed the larger group of attendees. Akinsanya says, “We got great feedback. The students asked questions about osteopathic medicine and how it differed from allopathic medicine.”

Motivated by the positive response, Akinsanya and her peers set out to reach more students, including those at the high school level. COMPASS student ambassadors visited the Community Health Academy of the Heights, on 158th Street in Harlem. There, they taught the students about three different types of illnesses and then had an actor role-play a patient with symptoms, leaving the students to guess what the correct diagnosis might be. “The distance from high school to medical school is great,” she says. “The seeds we plant now won’t blossom for years, but it’s still important to create that exposure.”

The COMPASS recruitment efforts also include distribution of “Student-to-Student” brochures that answer questions prospective minority applicants have about TouroCOM, as well as provide insight on what it’s like to attend medical school in vibrant New York City.

On campus, COMPASS provides informal mentoring for students in the master’s program. Akinsanya has a handful of students she checks in with monthly. As a peer resource, she answers questions about what classes to take, or just listens if her fellow students are feeling overwhelmed with the demands of school. “No one can get through medical school alone,” she says. “I want to make sure that people know they’re not alone.”

The enthusiastic reception to COMPASS is, no doubt, rooted in Akinsanya’s compassionate leadership. Though it’s still early on in her med school tenure, she says she’s leaning toward a specialty in psychiatry. Last summer, she completed a psychiatry rotation at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, working alongside third- and fourth-year students from Harvard Medical School. “I’ve always been interested in human behavior, and even if I choose a different specialty, I think I’ll always be a psychiatrist at heart,” she says.

A major focus of Akinsanya’s efforts is keeping students engaged on campus, such as by scheduling COMPASS meet-and-greets. Last fall, a group went to Amateur Night at the Apollo, right across the street from TouroCOM’s 125th Street location. “Community building is a big part of what we do,” she says.

COMPASS’ work has been well-received in the wider community, as well. Gina Moses, associate director of application services at the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine, is working with Akinsanya to replicate the project at other osteopathic schools across the country. Though the program is in its incipient stages, Akinsanya reports already there is substantial momentum behind it.

Recently, Akinsanya received the Sherry R. Arnstein Minority Student Scholarship after submitting an essay about her work with COMPASS and her passion to help others. In the essay she writes, “I believe that the COMPASS program can serve as a force that causes a chain reaction in a generation that is not only committed to serve the underserved, but committed to inspiring one another.”

Based on all that she has accomplished in a relatively short period of time, it appears this future osteopathic physician is making great strides on both counts.

To read the original article on the Touro College of Ostepathic Medicine page click here.