This summer, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) took an innovative new approach to recruiting young men who are underrepresented in the health professions. In addition to its annual summer pipeline programs, the school introduced a unique online experience, the Student-Athlete STEM Academy (SASA), specifically for members of this population who play high school sports.

The UAMS Division for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DDEI) got the idea for the academy after noticing a gender disparity in the university’s health sciences preparatory programs. More young women than men consistently participated in important opportunities such as the UAMS Pre-Health Scholars Program (PHSP), a six-week summer experience for students interested in pursuing health care careers, according to Nicholas Pettus, a senior diversity specialist and manager of diverse student recruitment at UAMS.

Pettus and DDEI Vice Chancellor Brian Gittens had a discussion about this gender gap and realized that the timeline for PHSP and similar programs interfered with athletic summer camps and training schedules. Such activities were thus impossible to attend for young men who play high school football or other sports that require summer training.

“We were competing with summer sports camps, and [PHSP] is a six-week program,” Pettus explains. “We were asking students to be committed for six weeks and to not miss a date unless they had a doctor’s appointment or something of that nature.”

Pettus and the DDEI team designed SASA to take place over the course of one week at the end of June when high school athletics in Arkansas take a “dead week,” he says. The specific goal of the program is to encourage young men from underserved backgrounds to pursue STEM disciplines that align with their interest in sports. The curriculum focuses on athletics-related fields including sports medicine, physical therapy, dietetics, and nutrition and emphasizes personal skills for success such as efficacy and leadership.

Participants must be from an underrepresented racial or ethnic background, come from a low-income household, or have an educational disadvantage, which the program defines as coming from an environment that has “inhibited in the attainment of knowledge, skills, and abilities required to enroll in and graduate from a health professions school,” according to the SASA website. Members are given a stipend of $150 for the week.

The academy was designed for 40 student-athletes and enrolled 35 participants from across the state of Arkansas in its first cohort. Members attended virtual sessions led by faculty, researchers, and industry professionals on topics such as protein powder’s impact on the body, the cellular effects of steroids, and more. Leaders also shared how characteristics that are developed through team sports — such as competitiveness and resiliency — are valuable for pursuing health care and medical careers.

Pettus and two mentors, both of whom are former athletes currently pursuing medical careers, are continuing to foster relationships with the first SASA cohort. They routinely check in with them through a digital networking app and are organizing quarterly Zoom meetings to ensure members are staying on track with their studies. The goal is for these students to enroll in challenging STEM courses while still in high school so that they have a strong foundation of knowledge and skills in those areas by the time they go to college, Pettus explains.

UAMS hopes to eventually expand SASA to include all genders, he says. The program’s current structure addresses the disparity for men of color in health and medical fields. As of 2019, only 3.1 percent of medical students in the U.S. were Black men, according to The New England Journal of Medicine. Hispanic and Latinx men represented approximately 3.4 percent of medical school enrollment — a figure that has remained fairly steady since the early 1980s, despite the significant increase in the Latinx population in the U.S. The statistics are also drastic for Native American men, who accounted for less than 1 percent of enrollment in 2019.

Other medical schools have begun exploring tailored programs like SASA to improve these numbers by introducing young athletes of color to health care studies. In September, the NCAA’s chief medical officer told Smithsonian magazine that his organization and the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) are in discussion with several universities about developing a pilot program to support African American athletes interested in medical careers. AAMC also recently launched a series of online workshops in partnership with the Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine that provides guidance for coaches, teachers, and others who want to help student-athletes pursue health care careers.

Student-athletes often feel they must choose between academics or sports, but programs such as SASA “affirm that they can do both,” Pettus says. This idea is “one of the biggest takeaways” of SASA and one of the most powerful, transformative lessons that young student-athletes can receive.

Mariah Stewart is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences is a 2021 recipient of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Health Professions Award.

This article was published in our December 2021 issue.