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Behind the Veil of Medical Prestige: The Excellence of Latina Women in Medicine

Ashley Cantu-Weinstein & Larissa De Souza

M2, Case Western Reserve University

In May of 2018, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai put a moratorium on student nominations into Alpha Omega Alpha (AOA), the historic honor medical society. This landmark decision followed a black student’s efforts to fight racial inequality within her institution. The catalyst for her activism occurred when she saw pictures of Icahn’s past AOA inductees. Only 3% of the students were from underrepresented racial/ethnic backgrounds. She compared this to the nearly 20% of Icahn’s student body identifying as underrepresented minorities. Not long before, JAMA Internal Medicine published a damning study indicating significant nationwide underrepresentation of racial minorities inducted into AOA. It’s natural to wonder how such a large discrepancy and blatant exclusion

could go unchallenged.

Several medical schools followed Icahn’s lead in halting medical student induction into AOA. Last year, colleagues at my medical school led an initiative for reconsideration of our institution’s affiliation with the honor society. In addition to general induction, AOA Chapters offer prestigious fellowships for research and leadership. Inspired by Icahn’s student activist, I looked at the names and headshots of students from my school selected for AOA fellowships in past years. Not one student was from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group. Receiving such a prestigious fellowship certainly boosts one’s application for residency programs similar to general induction into AOA. To me, this represented yet another example of minority exclusion from medical prestige. Are there other instances of minority exclusion outside of the AOA? Of course. But the AOA represents how leaders in medicine view excellence.

One of my close friends, Larissa De Souza, played a significant role in initiating the vote to reconsider our medical school’s affiliation with AOA. We frequently discuss challenges faced as Latina women in medicine, giving thought to why racial underrepresentation persists. It comes down to what the student from Icahn felt looking at her school’s AOA inductees and what I felt looking at my school’s AOA fellowship awardees. Hispanic and Latina women have not been the stereotype of medical prestige — that ideal is reserved for white and Asian folks with generations of academic achievement supplementing their graceful vertical ascent. Behind the veil of medical prestige, as portrayed by AOA, Larissa and I know how much the Hispanic and Latina women surrounding us have accomplished.

Larissa created a campaign to tackle vaccine hesitancy resulting in hundreds of underserved community members choosing to become vaccinated. Ariadna Marrero restructured our Medical Spanish curriculum, facilitating wider student involvement and incorporating community engagement. Penelope Halkiadakis is a dual degree MD/MPH candidate serving as an elected board member for Amnesty International, an impressive accomplishment amidst her studies. Sofia Corella is also a dual degree medical student who just started her PhD research in a neurodegeneration lab, where she takes pride in receiving mentorship from other exemplary women. Ashley Perez developed a popular social media page that offers underrepresented minorities accessible and interactive pre-medical resources, advice, and mentorship. As for me, I have found deep passions for community service and research. In addition to serving as our LMSA’s community service liaison and on the board of our student-run health clinic, I currently lead several research projects promoting mental health, women’s health, and holistic medical treatment.

We know excellence is not morphing ourselves to fit into a specific typology. Instead, we must use our words, voices, and actions to call attention to our people’s excellence and the excellence we will continue to achieve. We are so thankful to be part of the Latinx medical community, and we are privileged to join hands with you in showcasing our success in a world that historically was not meant for us.

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