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N.Y. City College Program Sends Inner-City Students to Medical School : Education: The Sophie Davis program offers a medical education in seven years at minimum expense. It has been called one of the best-kept secrets in the New York City high school system.


NEW YORK — When Esther Butler's father heard about the Sophie Davis program, one that would allow his daughter to become a doctor in seven years at minimum expense, he told the 16-year-old Brooklyn girl, "Sign here."

This spring Butler, now 23, was graduated from New York University Medical School, thanks to the Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education, part of the City University of New York.

The aim of the program is to seek out students in inner-city areas, give them a good medical education and them have then return as primary care doctors to similar areas.

The program guarantees the students a spot in one of seven good medical schools for the last two years. It is also relatively inexpensive. Students pay only City College tuition--$2,200 a year--for the first five years. A little more than half of the Sophie Davis students qualify for some financial aid, usually from the state.

The 70 students accepted each year complete an undergraduate degree and the first two years of medical school in five years. They then spend the last two years, their junior and senior years, in a traditional medical school.

In addition to the NYU School of Medicine, the other six schools in the program are Albany Medical College, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York Medical College, State University of New York (SUNY) Health Science Center at Brooklyn, SUNY at Stony Brook School of Medicine and SUNY Health Science Center at Syracuse.

Dr. Morton Slater, director of admissions of the Sophie Davis program, describes the program as one of the best-kept secrets in the city's high schools. Slater, a theoretical mathematician, and his staff actively recruit in the inner-city high schools looking for students who might make it through the rigorous program.

"Many people who came through our programs would never have become doctors without it," Slater said.

Slater says there are about 15 programs throughout the country that take kids out of high schools and put them through accelerated courses to become doctors, in places such as Brown University, Boston University and Union College in Schenectady, N.Y.

But the Sophie Davis program, as far as he knows, is the only one that makes such a concentrated drive to recruit students in the inner-city schools and later return them to the inner city as primary care physicians.

The program, begun in 1973 with a $2-million endowment, has graduated about 750 doctors. About 85% of those entering as college freshmen have graduated as doctors.

The students sign a Memorandum of Understanding that they will provide primary care medical service in an underserved urban area for two years after their residency.

Participants agree to enter primary medicine--family practice, obstetrics and gynecology and public health, and not specialties.

Esther Butler, the daughter of a minister and a lawyer, had dreams of going to Vassar and sitting on grassy lawns discussing philosophers.

"I had no choice," she said. "They were the parents. I was the kid. They said I would thank them when I was 30."

She is already grateful, or at least philosophical, about the choice she made.

"I missed the chance to take some of the liberal arts courses I would have liked to have taken and discuss philosophy and literature at all hours of the night in a college setting," she said. "But I guess everything is a trade-off. I certainly would not be a doctor now and I may have changed my mind along the way. Still, I sometimes think I missed something by not getting to sit on the grassy lawns of Vassar or Skidmore."

Instead, she lived at home for five years in one of Brooklyn's rougher sections and spent three hours a day on the New York City subway system, just getting to and from class.

Considering what she got--graduating from medical school only about $40,000 in debt, compared to the $125,000 to $150,000 many young doctors face--she has good reason to be happy with her choice.

After her residency at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, where she will specialize in primary care as an internist, she would like to work in a clinic for a while.

The four NYU graduates in the program this year all happen to be women.

One of them, Natalie Achong, an articulate recruiter for the program, remembers well her first day at City College in Harlem. She had to do a superficial dissection on the back of a cadaver.

"It really brought home the reality of what we had embarked upon," she said.

"Most of us were only 17 and we were pretty separated from most of the other students, but we knew we were here on a direct line to becoming a doctor," said Achong, who was born in Trinidad and had been accepted at several Ivy League schools.

"It also brought home how much there was to be learned along the way to becoming a physician."

Some academic advisers told her she was making a mistake by going to the City College of New York when she could have entered Harvard, Columbia or Princeton.

But she is thrilled with her decision, a decision that meant five years of commuting four hours a day by subway and bus just to get to class. She lives in Queens.

Achong will do her residency in obstetrics and gynecology at Yale.

Heather Sealy, born in England, came to the United States with her mother when she was 11 and lives in a hospital resident housing project with her mother, a nurse.

Although she was accepted at Cornell, she isn't sure she would have had enough money to get through medical school without the Sophie Davis program.

"I can only say Sophie Davis was my savior," she said.

"It's funny. I never wanted to be a nurse," she said. "It was always a doctor. I remember at 5 or 6 carrying around a little Tupperware container and going up to my friends and saying, 'It's time to take your temperature now.' Or I would write prescriptions for them."

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