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North Minneapolis program encourages children to become doctors, nurses

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Dr. Renee Crichlow is assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Minnesota. She also co-founded The Ladder, a program in north Minneapolis has worked to open up the world of medicine to students of color.
Courtesy of Joel Morehouse

For 45 years, a program in north Minneapolis has worked to open up the world of medicine to students of color. 

Dr. Renee Crichlow, assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Minnesota, co-founded The Ladder. She says the goal is to bring more people to the field.  Dr. Crichlow, who’s also the president of the Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians, spoke with All Things Considered host Tom Crann.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Dr. Renee Crichlow: During our visits to the Broadway Family Medicine Clinic, we would ask, “What do you want to be when you grow up? A lot of kids were saying “I want to be a doctor,” or “I want to be a nurse.” And it was clear to us they weren't at [the University of Minnesota]. One of the things that we really tried to fill out was why. 

The biggest thing that we found was you have to know how to get there. And if no one in your family's gone to college, it's unlikely that you know that there's eight years between high school and becoming a doctor and you don't know that you need to take specific classes in high school. You need to take specific classes in college. You need to engage in developing a well-rounded application. All those kind of things someone has to show you. 

Tom Crann: Why do you start early — with 9-year-old students? 

Crichlow: One of the big reasons is middle school is the most dangerous time for people to fall off of the science and math pathway. It's just not a cool place to be smart. It's a challenging place even if you're not trying to be a doctor. Middle school is one of the leading places for repeat suspensions which is one of the largest indicators that someone will enter the school-to-prison pipeline. So, our goal is to support them all the way through so that they know it's OK to be smart.

Crann Do you pair the kids up with a mentor like yourself?

Crichlow We do what we called "cascading mentorship". There’s some evidence that people in medical pathways learned the most from the people within two to three years of them [in school]. And so if you made it to the U, you probably have pretty good advice for those high school students. Same thing with getting into medical school. And same thing with our resident physicians, our interns. 

We also meet every second Saturday to do hands-on learning. You'll be teaching a 9-year-old how to read an X-ray. You'll be teaching a high school student how to use a defibrillator.

Crann: What difference has The Ladder made in the diversity of medical classes?

Crichlow: We've had doctors from underrepresented minorities come to the state of Minnesota to learn and train because of The Ladder. With our younger students, the most important impact I believe is on-time graduation from high school because that has an actual impact on their health. Graduating from high school on time versus not adds 10 years to your life.