Over the next four years, Lillian Lee and her classmates at the CUNY School of Medicine at The City College of New York will have an experience unlike that of most American medical students. CUNY Med was established to change the way medical care is delivered in communities like Harlem, East New York and the South Bronx, and to do it in a culturally competent way.
“We get to have the privilege of going to different underserved communities and interacting with patients, hearing their stories, understanding their narratives and learning about their cultures. It’s something that money can’t buy; something that textbooks can’t teach,” said Lillian, a member of CUNY Med’s Class of 2027.
Lillian was chosen to give the student address at the school’s recent B.S. Commencement and White Coat Ceremony, a moving ritual in which the students receive their diplomas, then exchange their caps and gowns for medical lab coats to symbolize the completion of their bachelor’s degrees and the beginning of their four years as student doctors.
I attended the event earlier this month at City College’s Great Hall to help celebrate this pivotal moment for the 75 CUNY students who are in the midst of their unique seven-year educational journey.
Lillian and her classmates were an inspiring group — diverse, talented and passionate about becoming doctors who bring frontline health care to underserved communities. These students — and the school — are vivid examples of CUNY’s deeply held missions of extending opportunity to New Yorkers of all backgrounds, advancing the public good and lifting New York.
Critical Medical Mission
CUNY Med’s combined Bachelor of Science and Doctor of Medicine program has established itself as one of the most diverse and mission-driven medical schools in the country. Half of its 650 current students — a group that includes undergraduates and MD students along with physician assistant graduate students — are members of minority groups that are underrepresented in medicine. Thirty-four percent of the MD students in 2022-23 were Black — more than triple the percentage at medical schools nationally — and 9% were Latino. Its faculty is also unusually diverse: A third are members of groups that are underrepresented in medicine, almost four times the national percentage.
CUNY Med also stands out among the 17 public and private medical schools in New York State, which reported a combined Black student enrollment of 9% and Latino enrollment of 6% in the past academic year.
CUNY Med’s great potential for diversifying New York’s medical profession — and serving as a model for addressing health inequities — is especially clear when you consider how radically different its community is from that of nearly every other medical school in the country. Aside from their racial diversity, more than 70% of CUNY Med’s students are first-generation college students and more than 80% are multilingual. And while the vast majority of medical students nationwide have affluent backgrounds — a quarter come from the top 5% in household income, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges — in contrast 40% of CUNY Med’s students qualify for need-based federal Pell grants.
The students’ demographics are aligned with CUNY Med’s continued commitment to increase diversity and representation in medicine, and they benefit from the school’s commitment to a first-rate education.
CUNY Med students are going to top-tier residency programs and about half are pursuing careers as primary care specialists. Many have had the experience of serving as interpreters for their parents or grandparents when they’ve gone to doctors’ offices. Now, they are driven by the aspiration to be those doctors — to increase the number of practitioners who look like them, and to have a direct impact on the quality of health care in neighborhoods like those in which they grew up.
Lillian Lee and her family know this story well; they have been transformed by CUNY Med, which was launched in 2016 as an outgrowth of the 50-year-old Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education at City College. Her father, Dr. Yick Moon Lee, graduated from Sophie Davis in 1993 and went on to become a nationally regarded pediatrician and president of the Chinese American Medical Society. And Lillian’s brother, Matthew, also attends CUNY Med and expects to graduate next year.
These are exciting times for CUNY Med as it continues to build on its history. The School recently celebrated a landmark moment when it earned full accreditation, an achievement that is critical to its continued success in recruiting high-caliber students who are committed to staying in the city after graduation and working to eradicate the systemic health care inequalities that came into clearer focus during the COVID-19 pandemic. Year by year, the school is training a new generation of diverse physicians dedicated to changing the landscape of medicine in the neighborhoods of New York.
Matos Rodríguez is the chancellor of The City University of New York (CUNY), the largest urban public university system in the United States.