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Profile: Helping Black and Hispanic Students Make a Career in Medicine

For more than 30 years, Kamal Khan has been providing the rigorous training and support underrepresented students need to get into and succeed in medical school

kamal khan
Dr. Kamal Khan

Who he is: Dr. Kamal Khan, is director of the Office for Diversity and Academic Success in Sciences (ODASIS) at Rutgers University.

Home: Khan, 62, lives in South Brunswick. He’s married and has a 26-year-old son, two stepdaughters, and two grandchildren.

Why he matters: For 30 years, ODASIS has provided academic support and rigorous preparation for students from diverse backgrounds, specifically black and Hispanic students, looking to get into medicine. The program, founded by Khan and Dr. Francine Essien in 1986, has sent hundreds of students to medical schools across the nation, especially in New Jersey.

Passage to America: Khan said he never finished high school on the Caribbean island where he was born. He had to quit school because of his parents’ work, and said he did not resume 12th grade until after he left Trinidad at the age of 20, and came to the United States on holiday.

After moving in with his uncle, Khan finished high school surrounded by people who did not look like him, a fact that did not faze him, he said.

“It was good. You know, nobody ever knew where Trinidad was,” Khan said. “It was all Caucasians, and here was a guy from Trinidad. People asked me: 'Do you wear grass skirts down there?' Of course, I went with it back then — it was funny.”

Far from the shelter of his family, Khan said that last year prepared him for his education at Rutgers University, where he would meet Essien and start ODASIS, and everything that came after.

Learning to learn: Khan said ODASIS is not a tutoring program. Instead of having students drill material, the program focuses on teaching students how to study effectively, while earning them college credits.

As freshmen, students are taught to identify what they do not know, and what they know, but cannot understand. They then drill material on their own, often for hours a day.

“Many students do drop because of the commitment,” Khan said. “It’s a lot of commitment; it's a lot of hours.”

Students are then connected with ODASIS alumni, who offer guidance and sometimes help the next generation find jobs down the line, Khan said.

System returns results: Between 1990 and 2015, there were 1,131 ODASIS graduates, according to the program’s website. Of these students, 410 went on to medical school. Another 238 went to other medical professions, like dentistry and biomedical sciences. Data in the ODASIS newsletter show ODASIS students outperform their peers in a number of medicine-related courses.

Money problems: Despite his love for teaching and the frequent advising he gives his students, Khan said his main responsibility is finding funding for the program.

“My job is to go to the foundations and work with them and try to get them to give funding, but it's so hard now compared to 10 years ago. It's very, very difficult,” he said. “When they get into medical school, there's support there. But the support to get them through college, to get them into medical school, is not.”

Khan stressed that Rutgers is committed to the program, but money from the school accounts for only 60 percent of ODASIS funding. Further, he said that while the funding from the university has stayed stable, costs are rising and hamstringing the program.

“Rutgers was very fortunate. They gave a lot of departments strategic plans — a certain amount of money for two years, which is fantastic. But for the two years, it was good for 38 students. This past year, 23 students,” he said. “Next year, with the same amount of money, you're coming down to 18 students.”

Increased costs of living, along with housing, tuition, and related fees have pushed operating costs higher, and Khan said grants and alumni donations are not keeping the program afloat.

Donations from alumni usually only come out to several thousand dollars, he said. Many of those donations do not go directly into ODASIS, and instead go to helping students deal with the costs of attending school. For instance, a $10,000 donation given to the program last year — the largest in ODASIS’ history — went to supporting three students financially.

Grant funding has also been disappearing, Khan said. A longstanding ODASIS grant from American pharmaceutical company Merck & Co. went to a different Rutgers Program in 2016.

“I'm always selling the programs, but I'm hitting the walls. It's worse now than ever, and this thing that happened with Merck, it really, really hurt,” he said. “Right now, we are just hitting nil. that's the bottom line, we are hitting nil.”

Nikita Biryukov is an intern at MSNBC and a stringer for The Home News Tribune and The Asbury Park Press, where he writes mainly about happenings in the city of New Brunswick.

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