By Lori O’Keefe

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many college students were struggling to pay their tuition bills and meet basic needs. Adding in the unprecedented disruptions of the last two and a half years and rising inflation has brought many students to the breaking point. Last fall I wrote another article for TBJ focused on this issue and how Triangle Community Foundation has approached supporting students in these challenging times. As we start to think about school starting again in just a few weeks, I wanted to offer a tangible example of how businesses can and have stepped up to provide the necessary assistance to support students in completing their educational goals.

For years, Wake Emergency Physicians, PA (WEPPA) and Mid-Atlantic Emergency Medical Associates (MEMA) noted that their emergency medical personnel with advanced degrees did not reflect the diversity of the community they served, and wanted a tangible way for the organizations, and their employees, to create change. A variety of research shows that patients have better outcomes when treated by a physician of the same race or ethnicity, and both organizations were struggling to find more providers of color.

In 2021, the groups began by creating a list of potential solutions for this issue (mentoring students at HBCUs, providing more emergency medicine shadowing opportunities with providers of color, etc.), but the most obvious was funding students’ education and related costs. Beginning with undergraduate degrees, the difference in debt levels between white students and students of color is significant and can inhibit the latter from seeking post-graduate degrees. Thus, creating a scholarship to support students of color pursuing graduate degrees in the emergency medical field became the primary strategy as it would support the pipeline for medical professionals of color and better outcomes for patients and communities.

As the research began for developing the scholarship program, the groups quickly realized that doing so would be more complex than they had anticipated, so they partnered with Triangle Community Foundation. The NC Diversity & Equity in Emergency Medicine Scholarship program now provides support to underrepresented minority students in MD, DO, and PA programs with financial need, and supports the expansion of a future healthcare workforce – a win for all involved.

While the program is just completing its first year, WEPPA and MEMA have been pleased with the outcome. They received an outstanding initial applicant pool, which only further demonstrates the unique need this program fills; they are already thinking about evolving the program to include additional funding partners across the state.

At the Foundation, we hear from the private sector on a regular basis, particularly as they look for opportunities to assist the community while furthering their own company goals. A scholarship program supports students, provides employees with a tangible way to give back to the community, and builds a workforce pipeline. While I could offer my own thoughts on the benefits of such a program and the steps needed to create one, I would rather let the words of WEPPA and MEMA staff speak for themselves. We asked them what they would say to an organization considering how to solve an issue they are facing, and specifically to those considering a scholarship program.

Dr. Kim Singletary, Emergency Physician, WEPPA: “It is really special knowing that we have created this. From my own experience I know the feeling of Black patients seeing a Black practitioner for the first time ever – the relaxing of shoulders, the sigh, the feel of familiarity in being able to communicate with someone who looks like them. We are creating a space for more people to have that experience.”

Dr. Jennifer Raley, Managing Partner, WEPPA: “You don’t know what you don’t know until you dive into a project like this. Whatever sector you are thinking of supporting, speak to professional schools in that area, as they are best served to tell you what their needs are and how they align with your goals.”

Andrew Kristianson, General Counsel, WEPPA: “The scope of the problem you are trying to solve can easily overwhelm you. To take the intentions and turn them into something concrete you need a strong advocate (as we had with Dr. Singletary), to build momentum and get the program off the ground. Beyond that, find a partner that can provide a turnkey solution.”

Dr Tim Lietz, President, MEMA: “The scholarship has allowed MEMA to partner with WEPPA and Triangle Community Foundation in a meaningful way to impact our commitment to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Healthcare.”

With skyrocketing tuition and living expenses continuing unabated, many students are looking for support outside of school-based financial aid options so they can meet their basic needs and realize their goals without undue financial hardship. Meanwhile, organizations are looking for a workforce pipeline to ensure a diverse, skilled talent base well into the future. Supporting students by funding flexible, multi-year scholarships with a community partner is an excellent way to achieve both.