The Underrepresented Student Perspective

Being a well-renowned center for medical professional training and for advances in scientific research is only the beginning of the list of qualities that have drawn diverse students to Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. Multicultural students cite a wide variety of reasons for choosing Columbia, ranging from the exceptional instruction provided by doctors who are leaders in their various fields to the many extracurricular organizations and opportunities available here. Some students came here because they felt a sense of comfort and welcoming. Other students say that the desire to be in New York City was a major factor in their decision. Whatever the reason, the students you encounter here have interests and motivations as diverse as their individual backgrounds.

The Neighborhood

Upon entering the Washington Heights neighborhood, one notices the diversity of residents in this community. The people one sees in the neighborhood, working in the hospital, or in the local establishments reflects a significant part of the patient base of NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center (NYPH/CUIMC) and its affiliated institutions. Also reflected in these faces are the many community involvement and learning opportunities available in the setting of Washington Heights. A reason often stated by underrepresented students for having chosen VP&S is the opportunity to work with a patient population that is underserved and help address the healthcare disparities that are seen among minority, immigrant, and economically disadvantaged populations. There are many opportunities to participate in the community education and community building programs established by the organizations within the Washington Heights and Harlem community. Organizations like Alianza Dominicana and African Services provide services for the Dominican and African immigrant populations, respectively. These organizations have a variety of programs in which medical students are able to participate and in doing so, get to know and to help the communities they will be working with throughout their training here.

The Faculty

At the beginning of the first year, students find that the faculty makes every attempt to provide a supportive environment that allows time to adjust to medical school and the new challenges it presents. Faculty members welcome the first-year medical students into the medical community as peers and an emphasis is placed on training students to be exceptional - not merely sufficient - physicians. One key support service is the Student Success Network (SSN) where second-year medical students hold high yield review sessions for first years before exams in each of their courses. The teaching faculty is also very receptive to office visits, emails, and phone calls from students who have questions about particular lecture topics. The faculty often invites students to spend time shadowing them in the hospital or in their clinics. They truly view medical students as their younger counterparts and try to foster intellectual development and curiosity.

Clinical Training

Concomitant with the goal of producing exceptional physicians, the importance of the humanistic and patient-care aspects of medicine is heavily emphasized. These aspects are presented to students in the Clinical Practice course throughout all four years of medical school. In the fall of the first year, students also begin practicing how to take patient histories and develop the skills necessary to build a therapeutic relationship with their patients. Part of the first-year Clinical Practice course is a Selective experience one afternoon per week in which students gain exposure to patient care in a clinical setting. Students are assigned to individual doctors in the hospitals, to neighborhood clinics, or to other community and health services organizations in the city. Columbia and its location present a particular advantage with respect to these patient experiences. Being in New York City offers a wide variety of settings to have these introductory clinical experiences. Being on the northern end of the west side of Manhattan also allows a cross-section of patients to be encountered. The medical school is in close proximity to the Upper West Side, the Bronx, and Harlem, and is in the middle of Washington Heights. Patients seen at NYPH/CUIMC and its affiliated institutions vary in race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

The Support Net

There are many advising/mentoring/support resources made available to students immediately upon entering Columbia VP&S. For starters, the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs opens their arms to students and assists first-year students through counseling, programming, and referrals. Each student is assigned a faculty advisor and is paired with a second-year student. The Alumni Affairs Office offers a Home Away From Home program in which a student is paired with a VP&S alumnus/a with similar interests or background. In addition to these resources, first-year female medical students who join the Columbia chapter of the American Medical Women's Association can also be matched with a second-year female medical student. And minority students at Columbia VP&S find a community among the other minority students at the medical school as well as the other Columbia health sciences graduate schools. Within the student community, one finds a source of support, motivation, and dynamic social interactions.


The Black and Latino Students Organization (BALSO) is the center of the underrepresented student community. The group organizes many events throughout the year, including speakers, theatre trips, potluck and formal dinners, and mixers with other graduate students throughout the city. Second-year BALSO students hold practice sessions for the first year anatomy practical exams, and each class provides advice for the class that follows them to help progress through medical school as smoothly as possible.

BALSO is also a chapter of Region IX of the SNMA (Student National Medical Association) and a chapter of the NBLHO (National Boricua Latino Health Organization). SNMA and NBLHO connect the black and Latino students at various medical schools and create opportunities for interactions including conferences, speaker presentations, parties, and leadership retreats.