By Alexis Clark
NASHVILLE, TN (TSU News Service) — Tennessee State University’s accelerated medical program is one step closer to fulfilling part of its mission as the first cohort prepares to enter medical school. In 2021, TSU put out a national call to recruit students, aspiring to become medical doctors and dentists, for the innovative Dr. Levi Watkins, Jr. Institute Meharry Medical College/Tennessee State University Medical/Dental Accelerated Pathway Program. One of those students answering the call was Samantha Altidort. The Nashville native looks to become a family medicine physician.
“When I found out there was a program at Tennessee State University that was geared towards increasing the number of minority physicians and preparing them for a future in medicine, I immediately applied,” said Altidort, who is a part of the inaugural class preparing for medical school at Meharry Medical College.
TSU’s accelerated medical program was estabhished in honor of alumnus and trailblazing heart surgeon Dr. Levi Watkins, Jr. In 1980, Dr. Watkins successfully implanted the first automatic heart defibrillator in a patient. The program, that bears his name, is intended to serves as a pipeline for minority students to become medical doctors. It was also created to ensure that there is a steady supply of physicians and dentists committed to addressing health equity in underserved communities.
Jaden Knight, of Dayton, Ohio, aims to attend Meharry Medical College and become an orthodontist. Knight added that he looks forward to addressing the underrepresentation of African American men in the field and improving minority patient satisfaction.
“It’s important for TSU to have a program like this because there is a lack of minorities in the field,” Knight said. “You have this support system of peers who are going through the same journey. It’s great to have someone to lean on.”
In addition to increasing the number of minority doctors to address health disparities such as hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease in communities of color that have the highest numbers for these diseases, the program also boasts exceptional academic students like Brooke Major. Major is also a part of the first Levi Watkins Jr. Institute cohort and the inaugural cohort of the Oprah Winfrey Leaders Scholarship program (OWLS).
With aspirations of becoming an OBGYN, Major finds motivation in seeing minority medical students participate in panels and formal discussions facilitated by the program.
“It was motivating for me to see Black young women who are interested in the same career field on the other side,” Major added. “I feel blessed.”
Approaching her third year, the Dallas, TX native shared that she has faced academic challenges due to the fast-track accelerated program. But revealed, it’s the unwavering support of the program’s faculty and staff that she truly loves. “That’s the biggest takeaway for me about the program that I love,” she expressed with gratitude. “Overall, they want to see us succeed. They just want us to get where we want to be, and they want to produce more Black doctors.”
Barbara C. Murrell, chair of the Dr. Levi Watkins, Jr. Institute and director of community relations expressed confidence in the program’s future. As the first cohort studies for the upcoming MCAT, Murrell said the Dr. Levi Watkins, Jr. Institute is in good hands and will thrive with those following in the footsteps of the inaugural class.
“It is important to pass the baton on to new students because it guarantees the continuation of the program and production of more African American and other minority physicians and dentists,” Murrell said.
Murrell explained that incoming freshman Amari Johnson is a prime example. Johnson, from Greenwood, Mississippi, received acceptance letters from 36 colleges, with over $1.1 million in scholarships offers from 17 of the institutions. As a valedictorian with a 4.4 GPA, Johnson says she always wanted to attend an HBCU.
When deciding on a college Johnson asked herself, “Where am I going to feel most at home? Where am I going to be able to reach my full potential?” Johnson shared. Johnson aspires to become a surgeon, representing minorities and addressing health disparities and equity. “Who better understands the African American woman’s body than an African American woman,” she said.
“We need to see more people in those positions, and this program is instrumental for that,” Johnson said. “It will inspire more doctors and nurses.” Murrell acknowledged the program’s potential to increase retention and make substantial contributions to society.
“Our society has a definite need to improve healthcare in the African American and other minority communities by helping to eliminate the disparities in healthcare and promote health equity,” Murrell stated. Grateful to witness the making of history as minority students become medical and dental professionals committed to serving underserved communities, Murrell shared a final piece of advice, “Dream big, work hard, stay focused, and make wise decisions.”
To learn more about the Dr. Levi Watkins, Jr. Institute Meharry Medical College/Tennessee State University Medical/Dental Accelerated Pathway Program and the Dr. Levi Watkins, Jr. Institute, visit https://www.tnstate.edu/watkins/.