Smith aims to build diversity from First Look to faculty

When Tarshree Sawyer arrived in Chapel Hill for this year’s Carolina First Look, she didn’t know very much about UNC. But, she knew Hugh Smith, UNC School of Medicine's associate director for faculty pipeline initiatives.

Hugh Smith (Photo by Max Englund/UNC Health Care)
Benny Joyner, MD shows off some of UNC's pediatric simulations equipment during the Carolina First Look.

By Jamie Williams,

Sawyer, a fourth-year medical student at the University of Toledo School of Medicine, met Smith at a national conference for medical students. That meeting started the dialogue that ultimately brought Sawyer to Carolina First Look, an event designed to attract minority and underrepresented students to UNC in the hope that they may consider UNC Hospital when applying for residency.

First Look is only a part of Smith’s work with Faculty Pipeline Initiatives. There’s also the Resident Diversity Initiative and Back to Carolina. His work hinges on building long-term relationships, spreading the word about the work being done at UNC, ensuring that potential residents or faculty members have a positive impression of the institution.

“Our mission is to reach out to minorities of race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, age and community with the goal of UNC School of Medicine having a faculty that is reflective of the state we serve,” Smith said.

“I want to make sure people think of Carolina as diverse and inclusive. We want to engage everyone.”

On a Friday evening in late August, a group of medical students from across the Southeast and beyond gathered in the lobby of the N.C. Cancer Hospital, ready to take a tour that would serve as the unofficial kick off of this year’s Carolina First Look. As the group made small talk and introduced each other, a few shared exactly why they chose to participate in First Look.

“I’m excited for the tour,” Sawyer said. “I hope to specialize in pediatrics and look forward to learning more about the residency program here.”

Ismail Kassim, a student at the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University, said he was interested in primary care.

“I am excited about interacting with residents and faculty members,” Kassim said.

As Smith welcomed the group, he outlined some of the weekend’s activities: a tour of the medical center, an informal reception at Linda’s on Franklin St., panel discussions, a lunch with faculty members and residents and other activities aimed at helping these students get a sense for what residency at UNC may be like.

“We just hope you get the vibe of the place,” Smith told the students as they departed on their tour.

“We tell the students there’s no commitment, come for the weekend, hang out with residents, meet some program directors and hopefully have a good time and have your questions answered,” Smith said.

The goal, he adds, is that when the time comes for fourth-year medical students to submit their residency applications, UNC Hospitals is a stronger consideration.

Smith connects with potential First Look attendees in a number of ways. He attends national conferences for medical students, as well as professional development events to network with attendees. He works closely with diversity officers at other medical schools, asking them to inform students of First Look and encourage them to attend. He also starts in Chapel Hill, inviting UNC School of Medicine students.

“If our students miss it,” Smith said. “I’ve missed.”

This year, Smith worked with staff in Student Affairs to invite every UNC School of Medicine student who identifies as being from an underrepresented group. The UNC students, Smith said, can often be great ambassadors for other students visiting from out of town.

“Our students are really great at explaining all of the benefits about living and working here,” Smith said.

Following the First Look weekend, follow-up surveys are sent to both student and faculty participants. Smith then works to connect students who have questions or are interested in learning more about a particular program with the faculty members or program directors that can help.

“The largest success of this program is helping to identify students who maybe weren’t on our radar and also hopefully putting UNC on the agenda of a student who maybe hadn’t previously considered coming here,” Smith said.

If Carolina First Look is all about encouraging underrepresented students to consider a residency at UNC, the Residency Diversity Initiative is all about strengthening relationships between residents and the institution, as well as each other.

Smith said he works to hold regular events that offer either some family friendly fun or professional development opportunities.

“We want to actively engage,” Smith said. “So, we’ll get folks together for a picnic or invite residents to come in for lunch and to hear a speaker.”

There is also a scholarship for visiting students named in honor of Larry D. Keith, a nationally-recognized pioneer for diversity at the UNC School of Medicine. These funds support students from other institutions who would like to come for a rotation in a particular specialty.

He introduces residents to medical students through events like the Doctors for Diversity event, which is being organized by the UNC School of Medicine and the Whitehead Society and being held Oct. 7.

“We try to close the perceived gap between medical students who may see residency as a long ways off,” Smith said. “And we encourage residents to take on a mentee and work with a student who may now be where they were two or three years ago.”

Smith also said he’s met with and advised departments that are interested in starting their own diversity initiatives, connecting them to students he has met or discussing ways to recruit minority students.

Back to Carolina is what Smith calls the “third tier” of his approach, aimed at medical alumni. He wants to keep them involved and informed and be creative about opportunities to get them back to Chapel Hill.

“We have around 900 UNC School of Medicine alumni who identify as being from an underrepresented group,” Smith said. “Some are still here and some are not which is just reality. But, we’re always looking to get them back to give a talk or maybe be a visiting professor or even apply for a senior faculty position.”

Smith said he just wants to be a valuable resource for the institution.

“I’m trying to do a few things really well and just build from there,” he said. “I want to do whatever I can to be of service and make this place better.”

As Smith networks at conferences and events, he says he meets people at various stages of their medical careers. Each hears the same impassioned pitch for UNC.

He has built a database of hundreds of people he has met at conferences who expressed interest about learning more about UNC.

“There’s no real end to what I do,” Smith said. “Whether they visit immediately or not, we have a relationship and they are still a part of the Carolina experience and hopefully have a good impression of what we do. Maybe down the road we invite them to come speak, or maybe we have a faculty position they are a good fit for, that’s what building this pipeline is all about.”


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