Future Physician Finds Her Fit in Medical School
Jul 10, 2024
Sutter Health
Black woman in college sweatshirt poses next to college mascot

By Debbie Ritenour, Vitals contributor

Naomi Dillard knows what it’s like to feel different. While the high school she attended in Sacramento is one of the most diverse in the state, the students in its International Baccalaureate program were not. Dillard was often one of only two or three Black students in her advanced classes. At the same time, her peers outside the classroom didn’t share her passion for academic pursuits, so she didn’t always feel like she fit in with them either.

That all changed when she began attending summer science, technology, engineering and math summer camps at the University of California, Davis. She explored robotics and other STEM fields at camp while taking math and SAT prep courses. Most importantly, she felt like part of a community.

“I found a group of like-minded individuals with similar experiences,” Dillard says. “It was really transformative for me.”

As part of the first cohort of scholarship winners who entered the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science MD Program this summer as a member of the Class of 2028, Dillard remains as committed to learning as ever. She is grateful for the full-tuition scholarship, academic support and experiential learning opportunities, which are courtesy of Sutter Health, a not-for-profit, integrated health system based in California.

“I’m very passionate about preventative health,” Dillard says. “I want to be able to arm my patients and my community with the wealth of knowledge that I’ll accumulate while I’m in medical school and beyond.”

Gaining Experience

Dillard first heard about historically Black colleges and universities at one of her summer camps. She was immediately drawn to the idea of attending a college where she would be surrounded by students with similar backgrounds and cultural experiences.

“I was excited to hear about colleges where there would be a lot of people who look like me and have the same high goals,” says Dillard, who received a full scholarship from , an HBCU in Texas. “I only applied to HBCUs out of high school, and Prairie View really stood out to me because it had an undergraduate medical academy.”

The Texas Undergraduate Medical Academy at Prairie View A&M University prepares students for medical, dental, pharmacy or veterinary school through enriched undergraduate courses, exam prep, mentorship and advising. Dillard served as class representative her freshman year and as vice president her junior and senior years. She also was part of the Honors Program at Prairie View and served as director of health and safety within the Student Government Association, among other activities.

In addition to her academic and extracurricular activities, Dillard worked 20 hours a week as a student researcher for the chemistry department during her sophomore, junior and senior years. One of the most impactful experiences of her college career was the opportunity to work at the UC Davis Center for Reducing Health Disparities the summer before her junior year. As assistant project coordinator for the MOVE IT UP Project, Dillard supported efforts to bring mobile COVID testing and vaccination clinics into underserved communities, particularly migrant camps.

“I talked to people who looked like me who were hesitant about the vaccine,” she says. “They would come up to me and say, ‘Tell me the truth. Is this something I should get?’ I provided education that helped them feel more comfortable about it. It was a great experience.”

Building Trust

When it came time for Dillard to apply for medical school, CDU was a natural fit. One of only four historically Black medical schools in the country, CDU aims to prepare diverse healthcare professionals committed to caring for underrepresented populations.

“I did a lot of research on a lot of different schools, and Charles Drew stood out to me because of their mission,” Dillard says. “Also, when I came down for Admitted Students Day, it was such a warm, family-like environment. It seemed like everybody wanted each other to succeed. I knew I would thrive in a place like that.”

Dillard is looking forward to building strong relationships with patients like the one she has with her own primary care provider, who even attended her high school graduation party. She also hopes she can do her part to help eliminate healthcare disparities by serving diverse populations.

“There is definitely something to be said about the distrust of medical professionals in underserved communities, especially in the Black community,” Dillard says. “I’m excited to be a familiar face and somebody that people feel like they can trust when they walk in the room. There’s always a sense of relief when you feel like your provider matches up with you and your cultural values.”

As she reflects on her journey, Dillard knows what she would tell her younger self. “I would tell her, ‘We’ve made it. I’m proud of you for not listening to the naysayers and staying strong. God didn’t bring you this far to leave you. It will all pay off,” she says.

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