Mentors Make It Possible
Listening to medical students speak at University of Michigan Medical School, Mariam Ayyash (’13 B.S.) — then an undergraduate student on a tour organized by UM-Dearborn — found the research, student experience and clinical work inspiring.
But something was missing: As engaging as the tour was, she didn’t meet anyone she felt reflected her experience. And that let a bit of doubt creep in.
A first-generation college student, Ayyash didn’t have any family in the medical field. She worked full time as an undergraduate. She came to the U.S. just prior to college; English was her second language.
“I wasn’t sure how much of a chance I had for medical school when I didn’t see someone who was in the position I was or looked like me. But I did get in,” said Ayyash, who graduates from U-M Medical School this spring and begins her OB/GYN residency in July. “I want other UM-Dearborn students to know they can too. It’s motivating to see someone who has come from where you did — that reminds you to keep working hard because it is possible.”
So Ayyash and her medical school peer Zeinab Rizk (’13 B.S.) created a program to do just that.
Together — they founded the UM-Dearborn Pre-Med Alumni Mentoring Program in 2015. The program connects pre-med students with alumni currently enrolled in medical school. (UM-Dearborn graduates are enrolled in all seven medical schools in Michigan and are accepted to universities across the nation, from University of Washington to the University of Florida.)
It’s motivating to see someone who has come from where you did — that reminds you to keep working hard because it is possible.
Nearly 60 have served as advisers since 2018, with each working one-on-one with a UM-Dearborn student. Ayyash knows the importance of mentors firsthand. She considers Rizk, who went to medical school a year before she did, a personal source of her success with the application process.
“We, the mentors, had a great experience at UM-Dearborn and want to give back,” Ayyash said. “Many of us didn’t have family or close connections in the field [to share their experiences]. But we can now give that to students.”
Know How to Network
Fatima Saad wants to help alleviate health care obstacles in her community and said a medical school education is needed for the positive impact she intends to make. But the biochemistry major wasn’t sure how to best prepare.
Then she joined UM-Dearborn Pre-Med Alumni Mentoring Program.
“You get a mentor to plug you into the medical school experience, but it’s more than that one person. It’s also opened this huge network of UM-Dearborn medical students to me,” said Saad, whose first mentor was Ayyash. “Mariam would meet for coffee and we’d talk about what medical school is like or we’d text about classes she had as an undergrad that really helped her prepare for medical school. Mariam answered whatever questions I had. If she didn’t know, she would connect me with someone who did. For example, when I asked her for insight on if I should join the campus’ Pre-Professional Health Society, she connected me to someone who was on the executive board.” Saad did join the Pre-Professional Health Society and is the current president.
Saad now is connected with her third mentor through the program, which offers undergraduates a new mentor every year to increase their network.
Ayyash said a focus on network building is intentional throughout the mentoring program. For example, she encourages the mentors to use their networks with each other to further build students’ networks. (One student recently landed a cardiology clinical experience when his mentor connected him to another UM-Dearborn graduate who works in the specialty field.) And future plans for the program include expanding it to include alumni in residency and in practice.
Ayyash and her team of alumni mentors work closely with UM-Dearborn Health Professions Adviser Tahnee Prokopow, who all share a common mission: to serve as a bridge to medical school.
Prokopow advises about 950 students who have an interest in a health profession — that equals 10 percent of the university’s student population. About half of those students are pre-med; the others have an interest in one of 10 other pre-health areas the university offers, including pre-dental, pre-optometry and pre-physical therapy.
Mrs. P is the type of mentor who will make you think. She will guide you, but allows you to come to the right conclusion for you.
Pre-med students and recent alumni — all who call her Mrs. P — say Prokopow asks critical questions and is fair and consistent with the high expectations she has for her students. Ryan Kelly (’17 B.S.), a Wayne State University School of Medicine student, said he works to model his mentoring style after hers as a first-year participant in the UM-Dearborn Pre-Med Alumni Mentoring Program.
“Her honesty, if you are open to it, will take you where you want to go,” he said. “Mrs. P is the type of mentor who will make you think. She will guide you, but allows you to come to the right conclusion for you. She’s a role model on how to work with and mentor students.”
With 23 years combined work experiences in health professions advising, engagement of minorities in clinical research and medical school diversity efforts — and more than half of that time serving U-M Medical School — Prokopow knows who medical schools are looking for.
“The medical field is increasingly seeing the importance of cultural awareness, along with academic strength, community service and sound ethics,” she said. “Our pre-med students have all of these qualities. That’s why they are competing with students from around the world for medical school spots and are succeeding.”
And for that medical school tour Ayyash attended years ago? Populated with alumni in the pre-med mentoring program and coordinated through Prokopow’s office, that now reflects UM-Dearborn’s diversity and success too.
Working with the medical school, Ayyash transformed the experience to connect undergraduate students directly with UM-Dearborn graduates. In addition to meeting the medical school dean and admissions director, students hear from U-M physicians like Dr. Maya Hammoud (’92 B.S.) and a panel of UM-Dearborn graduates currently in the M.D. program, including Daniela Gomez Zubieta (’17 B.S.), who is pursuing her M.D./Ph.D. at U-M, an elite medical scientist training program.
Nearly 140 students toured U-M Medical School this academic year, including Saad, who also organized the first UM-Dearborn tour and alumni panel discussion at Wayne State’s medical school this year.
Saad, who is applying to medical school early this summer, said the tour and mentoring program provide encouragement to keep working toward her dream of medical school.
“Being a doctor is my life mission. One day I hope to open a clinic that will work to eliminate barriers — logistical, cultural, financial — to healthcare,” she said. “But I had concern I wouldn’t be able to do this because of similar barriers. What my time on campus has taught me is that my dream isn’t crazy. It is possible and I will get there.”