Meet the next generation of community healthcare leaders

The MERIT Health Leadership Academy in Baltimore works with underrepresented high school students who aspire to have careers in medicine.

Zion Smith and Jeremiah Kouka are two Baltimore City high school graduates who are spending their summer eagerly awaiting the start of their freshman years at the University of Southern California and Northeastern University, respectively.

Smith and Kouka will get to spend their summer months packing and planning for a future that is sadly uncommon for the majority of Baltimore City youngest residents. They stand out in a community where roughly a quarter of students go on to earn college degrees. Both of these students are also linked as scholars in the class of 2019 at the MERIT Health Leadership Academy.

The MERIT Health Leadership Academy is a Baltimore-based educational nonprofit with one major aim: to help transform Baltimore City high school students into the future healthcare leaders of America. MERIT is a two-and-a-half year program that starts in the middle of a student’s sophomore year of high school.

high school student celebrates with USC pendant Zion Smith will be attending USC on the Mork Scholarship, which is an ultra-competitive scholarship given to only ten students around the world. (Photo: The MERIT Health Leadership Academy)

The students involved represent the diversity of Baltimore City — with the majority of students being ethnic minorities. The program provides supplemental educational opportunities for students in the form of advanced academic classes, test prep, college admissions counseling, career mentorship, and exposure to internships in hospital and research lab settings.

Since its inception in 2010, 98% of all MERIT students have received college acceptances. The most recent senior cohort, the class of 2019, had a 100% rate of college acceptances. The class as a whole earned $9.2M worth of scholarships, with 61% of the students attending a university for free.

Smith will be attending the University of Southern California on the Mork Scholarship, which is an ultra-competitive scholarship that gives both a full ride and a stipend to its recipients. She is just one of ten students around the world to receive it.

MERIT’s emphasis on providing academic and real world exposure to the STEM world for its students is particularly important, given that minorities are drastically underrepresented in science and healthcare settings. For example, Black doctors account for only 6% of physicians, despite being 13% of the population.

smiling high school student holding certificate in hand Smith says that “MERIT taught me to have confidence in myself." (Photo: The MERIT Health Leadership Academy)

The number of Latinx physicians has also been steadily decreasing, despite the fact that the Latinx population is increasing in America. Unfortunately, there are plenty of other disparities in the nursing, biomedical research, and additional fields as well. These gaps don't go unnoticed by students.

Smith remarked that, “My favorite part of the MERIT program is their mission to level the playing field for underrepresented, minority, and low-income students who are passionate about medicine and healthcare."

She adds, “I have gained so much exposure to what it means to be a leader and activist. I have done a speech at Johns Hopkins Hospital Grand Rounds, I have hosted numerous research symposia, I even led a synthetic biology research team in an international competition in Boston.”

Kouka agrees, adding, “My overall experience in MERIT has been wonderful. I have been able to experience things that the average kid in Baltimore could only dream of, such as shadowing doctors, witnessing surgeries, and presenting at symposiums.”

high school student shows research via screen MERIT scholar Jeremiah Kouka presenting his research. (Photo: The MERIT Health Leadership Academy)

MERIT also works to cultivate other non-academic skills that can help its students succeed in their future careers. Kouka says, “While being in MERIT, I have gained public speaking skills through being an MC and presenter at various Grand Rounds and Symposiums at Johns Hopkins Hospital and Bayview Hospital."

Smith adds that, “MERIT has taught me to have confidence in myself, that I have potential, that I can do anything that I set my mind to, and that it is extremely important for people like me to be a leader in healthcare.”

In a country where imposter syndrome affects so many high achieving people of color, instilling confidence in youth is an essential skill that MERIT has taken time to implement in their students.

The MERIT Health Leadership Academy is a testament to the truth that students from disempowered communities like Baltimore City can thrive academically when in spaces that nurture their intellectual abilities and career aspirations.

The program stands as an impressive model that offers a viable solution for ways in which the U.S. can fix the education and healthcare disparities in the neediest communities. One student at a time, MERIT is helping turn success stories like Smith's and Kouka's from anomalies to commonalities.

writer Tiffany Onyejiaka

Tiffany Onyejiaka is a writer based in the Washington, D.C. area. She graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 2017 where she majored in Public Health, Africana Studies, and Natural Sciences. Tiffany loves to write about dynamic social change that brings awareness to and empowers historically disempowered and underserved communities.

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