BEAM Program Builds Equitable Mentorship for Underrepresented Medical Students

April 12, 2023
VOL 25 NO 1

Jasmine Love remembers wanting to become a physician at an early age. Now she’s a fourth-year medical student who will earn her medical degree in May 2023 at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health (SMPH).

“When I was in elementary school, my vision was solidified when my grandmother became sick. She spent three months in intensive care units in Chicago, and that was the first time I saw what it meant to be a doctor,” says Love. “My idea of being a doctor has transformed into the reality that I will be there to provide care for patients in their most vulnerable states. This is an opportunity to make an impact in my community-particularly among patients who look like me.”

Jasmine Love
Jasmine Love

Because Love, who was raised by a single mother in Chicago’s south suburbs, did not have anyone in her family who was a physician, she says, “I pretty much paved the way for myself in terms of preparing for a career in medicine.”

Jalin Roberson, another soon-to­-graduate UW medical student and the first person in his family to graduate from college, shares a similar story.

“My interest [in becoming a physician] began when my nephew was born prematurely. He spent a lot of time in the neonatal intensive care unit when I was in high school, and that was my first insight into what health care could be and how it could be life-changing for people,” says Roberson, who grew up in Milwaukee. “That led me down this path.”

It’s for students like Love and Roberson that school leaders created the Building Equitable Access to Mentorship (BEAM) Program. Now in its fourth year, BEAM is a unique, evidence-based mentoring program that matches trained faculty mentors with Phase 1 medical students from groups historically underrepresented in medicine (URM)-a cohort that comprises 35 percent of the fall 2022 entering class of medical students at the School of Medicine and Public Health.

This is an opportunity to make an impact in my community — particularly among patients who look like me.

– Jasmine Love

The idea for BEAM was conceived in response to feedback in 2018 from students of color — particularly those who identified as Black —   who expressed discontent with the lack of connectivity with faculty members and each other, and what they perceived as a somewhat poor school climate, according to Angela Byars-Winston, PhD, the first Black tenured full professor in the Department of Medicine and a national leader in culturally aware mentorship for underrepresented students in the academic sciences.

With support from school leaders in partnership with the Kern National Network for Flourishing in Medicine, Byars-Winston; Christine Sorkness, PharmD, RPh, distinguished professor (CHS), UW School of Pharmacy and UW Department of Medicine; Elizabeth Petty, MD ’86 (PG ’89), SMPH senior associate dean for academic affairs; and Tracy Downs, MD, FACP, former SMPH associate dean for diversity and multicultural affairs, teamed up to address these concerns, and they contributed to the launch of BEAM in 2019. Believed to be the only program of its kind in the United States, BEAM offers competency-based education and resources to faculty scholars who, in turn, serve as mentors for underrepresented in medicine students.

“We decided to develop a program that isn’t about mentoring people into medicine or a career specialty, but instead focuses on mentoring those students of color for cultural awareness and career persistence-staying power with their medical passions — and creating spaces in which they can learn strategies and tactics, and be heard and affirmed in their experiences,” notes Byars-Winston.

More than 130 students and 31 mentors have been involved in BEAM to date, and 2023 marks a significant milestone — the first cohort of mentees will earn their medical degrees in May. Roberson and Love are among them.

Love was paired with Makeba Williams, MD, formerly an associate professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, whom Love describes as “the first mentor I had who mirrored myself — a Black woman.”

“I remember Dr. Williams reaching out during pivotal moments in my medical school career,” Love recalls. “I appreciated our check-ins and always felt like I had someone to advise me, if needed, on academic and personal matters, as well as someone who was willing to advocate for me.”

Love also credits Williams with making her transition to Madison easier and more welcoming — even inviting her to Thanksgiving dinner when Love could not make it home to celebrate with her family.

Before becoming BEAM mentors, faculty members complete 10 to 12 hours of evidence-based training that explores multiple mentoring models, case scenarios, and tools to improve mentoring. They complete three self-paced online modules, including one developed by Byars-Winston on culturally aware mentoring, followed by in-person group discussions led by Byars-Winston and Sorkness, who is a nationally recognized leader in mentorship and a National Research Mentor Network principal facilitator for research mentor training.

“We have the privilege of bringing what we know works from our research efforts into the BEAM Program,” explains Byars-Winston. “Mentorship has to be approached with intentionality and cultural responsiveness. The UW School of Medicine and Public Health is racially homogeneous, and being here takes energy besides one’s intellectual and cognitive skills to be a physician. So, we are deliberate about the curricula and about having scripts that help the mentor support the student’s self-efficacy, their motivation for their medical career, and their cultural resilience.”

Medical school can be really lonely, but a thread throughout my medical school journey has been the sense of community that BEAM, in conjunction with the Office of Multicultural Affairs, has afforded.

– Cat Phouybanhdyt

Byars-Winston, Sorkness, and Petty serve as BEAM co-leaders alongside Jason Stephenson, MD, associate dean for multicultural affairs for health professions learners and an associate professor in the Department of Radiology. Manuel Santiago and Tia Rice support the program in their roles as director and multicultural affairs initiatives specialist, respectively, in the Office of Multicultural Affairs, in which BEAM is housed. Stephenson heads BEAM’s steering committee and oversees its logistical operations. He also served as a mentor during the program’s first two years before he stepped into his current role as an associate dean.

“The BEAM training was something I really looked forward to,” reflects Stephenson. “For me, as a faculty member from a background that’s underrepresented in medicine, it was one of the first times I’ve really had an opportunity to talk about my experience in academic medicine — how it has been affected by historical oppression and microaggressions-and to hear the experiences of others.”

After training wraps up, new and returning mentors are grouped with two to three mentees in learning “pods”— a term Byars-Winston and Sorkness chose because of the way whales operate together in the ocean. The term also illustrates BEAM’s goals, which center on building a cohesive, supportive community of diverse faculty members and students (see sidebar).

He adds, “That training fundamentally changed the way I look at teaching, working with students, providing guidance, and approaching my mentor/mentee relationships. It was important, and I have seen that happen with the other mentor cohorts. They feel connected to the process and the program, and especially to mentors they work with.”

María Cecilia Abreu González, Patricia Téllez-Girón, and Gabriella Geiger
Patricia Téllez-Girón, MD, (center), served as a BEAM Program mentor for Gabriella Geiger (right) during her first year of medical school in the 2021-2022 academic year. Téllez-Girón says the positive experience with BEAM inspired her to continue mentoring future students, including María Cecilia Abreu González (left), who is now completing her first year of medical school.

Patricia Tellez-Giron, MD (PG ’00), associate professor, Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, has mentored numerous underrepresented in medicine students over the past 20 years. Most recently, she has been a mentor for three BEAM pods, including mentees Gabriella Geiger and Maria Cecilia Abreu Gonzalez in the 2021-22 and 2022-23 academic years, respectively.

“From the beginning, I thought BEAM was a fabulous idea,” states Tellez-Giron. “I have seen firsthand how minority students do not usually get the mentoring they need and do not feel comfortable sharing their stories or needs with people they feel might not understand what they are going through. I am in a special position to be able to see where they are coming from, how to advise them, and how to create opportunities for them.”

The School of Medicine and Public Health’s Office of Multicultural Affairs is instrumental in recruiting and supporting both mentors and mentees, and inviting medical students who self­-identify as underrepresented in medicine to participate in BEAM when they arrive on campus. Students who opt in meet with their pods during an annual kickoff in January that features an icebreaker designed to foster excitement and build community. After that, mentors and mentees meet at least four times during the school year, in casual and more structured settings. Activities range from attending monthly dinners hosted by the Office of Multicultural Affairs and other events sponsored by School of Medicine and Public Health units, to volunteering together in the community, or simply checking in to discuss questions and concerns. What matters most is not the venue, but the connections BEAM provides.

“Medical school can be really lonely, but a thread throughout my medical school journey has been the sense of community that BEAM, in conjunction with the Office of Multicultural Affairs, has afforded,” says Cat Phouybanhdyt, an UW student in the dual MD/master of public health degree track, who anticipates graduating in 2024.

The daughter of Laotian refugees, Phouybanhdyt grew up in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Her mother is a nurse, but in her younger years, Phouybanhdyt did not have physician role models who understood her cultural experiences.

“I’m a firm believer in mentorship,” states Phouybanhdyt, who also had a mentor through the UW–Madison Chancellor’s Scholarship Program when she was an undergraduate student. “As students, it’s one thing to feel a sense of community among student organizations and cultural affinity groups. But to have mentors who can relate to what we are going through — people we can be authentic and vulnerable with — is invaluable.”

Agreeing, Roberson adds, “Especially for underrepresented students, going through medical school is daunting. If you do not have those connections, the BEAM Program supplements that experience by pairing you with somebody who has been through it, who can help you through it and be there to listen.”

Byars-Winston points to an African proverb that aptly summarizes the positive impact BEAM has had for mentees and mentors: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”

She concludes, “That’s what the BEAM Program provides.”