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School of Medicine discoveries

April 5, 2017

Whitehurst-Cook and Jackson selected for Hall of Heroes

An admissions office routinely recruits and processes applications with an eye toward building a strong class. But a pair in VCU’s School of Medicine have been lauded for going above and beyond, supporting students before, during and after medical school.

The Student National Medical Association has honored Michelle Whitehurst-Cook, M’79, and Donna Jackson, Ed.D.,

The Student National Medical Association has honored Michelle Whitehurst-Cook, M’79, and Donna Jackson, Ed.D., for their work to increase the number of clinically excellent, culturally competent and socially conscious physicians.

Michelle Whitehurst-Cook, M’79, senior associate dean of admissions, and Donna Jackson, Ed.D., assistant dean of admissions and director of Student Outreach Programs, were tapped for induction into the Hall of Heroes of the Student National Medical Association.

The Hall of Heroes distinction is SNMA’s most prestigious recognition, honoring administrators, physicians and others who champion the cause for a diverse physician workforce. SNMA says its mission is to support current and future underrepresented minority medical students, address the needs of underserved communities and increase the number of clinically excellent, culturally competent and socially conscious physicians.

Whitehurst-Cook and Jackson, nominated by current and former students, were unanimously elected about a year ago, but won’t be formally inducted until this year’s SNMA conference, April 12-16, in Atlanta. Both said they were surprised to find they’d been selected – and it took some time before they realized that the other also had been. That the nomination came from students was especially meaningful. “You never know how you touch someone,” Jackson says.

The two have worked together for more than a decade, and share a common philosophy and priorities.

“Our goal is always to have a diverse class,” says Whitehurst-Cook, who also serves as associate professor of family medicine and population health. “It’s not just about minority status, but bringing together a new class each year of individuals who’ve done awesome things in their lives. They will be sharing their upbringing, their culture and their varied experiences.”

Ultimately, she says, that leads to a richer experience for students and better medical care for patients, as physicians-to-be learn to relate to diverse populations.

But diversity alone doesn’t ensure success, so inclusion is equally important. With so many different backgrounds converging in a high-stress environment, it’s important to offer support and encouragement, Whitehurst-Cook says. “We’ve worked hard to enhance our diversity here and to support students once they get here. You can recruit a medical student, but you want all of them to be happy and to thrive. “

On the MCV Campus, offerings for minority students include the SNMA and the Latino Medical Student Association. The two student organizations team up to present the “Second-Look” program that gives accepted students and potential recruits opportunities to interact with faculty and students in a more relaxed atmosphere than the usual formal tours and interviews. At VCU, underrepresented minority students are defined as African-American, Latino, Native Americans, Alaskans and Pacific Islanders.

What’s needed to enroll more diverse students, though, is an increase in scholarship money, and Whitehurst-Cook and Jackson are hoping that in the near future, they’ll be able to offer assistance to more students.

Plenty of potential students are on the admissions radar while they’re still in high school or undergraduate programs. Whitehurst-Cook and Jackson help those students – and often their parents – find a path to success in medical school, whether that’s at VCU or elsewhere.

When they’re building a class for the medical school, Whitehurst-Cook and Jackson agree that students should show a commitment to nonclinical community service by helping people. “In addition to a passion for medicine, we want them to show compassion,” Whitehurst-Cook says. “In other words, we want them to be smart – and nice.”

The admissions office has an open-door policy, so students, potential students and graduates who need a place to unwind can find a friendly ear, advice and occasionally some free pizza.

“I think it’s important that we try to make all of our students feel like they’re part of a family. We really do care about what they’re going through,” Jackson says. The feeling is mutual, she said, as a large contingent of SNMA members attended her son’s Eagle Scout ceremony.

“I think they feel like we are more than student and administrator.”

By Lisa Crutchfield