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MSU hosts scholar Anthony Jack for discussion on health, income disparity in higher education

January 19, 2024
<p>Dr. Anthony Jack giving a speech during the Martin Luther King Jr. Observance by Health Colleges at Conrad Hall on Jan. 18, 2024.</p>

Dr. Anthony Jack giving a speech during the Martin Luther King Jr. Observance by Health Colleges at Conrad Hall on Jan. 18, 2024.

For many class instructors, defining ‘office hours’ may not seem like the most important piece of information to include in a syllabus at the beginning of a semester. Yet according to Boston University Faculty Director and Associate Professor Dr. Anthony Jack, oversights like this can often create barriers in education for students coming from lower income communities. 

Jack gave a talk at Michigan State University on Thursday as part of the Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Celebration that ran throughout the week. The talk, titled “Revisiting the Beloved Community: Health Colleges’ Supporting our most vulnerable as we work for Health Equity," focused on the ways in which differences in students' backgrounds can influence how they navigate college curriculum

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The event was jointly sponsored by the MSU College of Human Medicine, College of Nursing, College of Osteopathic Medicine and the College of Veterinary Medicine. It was started in 2018 as a way to teach students more about the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said Associate Dean for Admissions, Student Life and Inclusivity for the College of Veterinary Medicine Dr. Mejia Abreu.

Additionally, Abreu said that the event is also meant to teach students and faculty about some of the challenges when it comes to health disparities

According to Jack, 14% of undergraduate students at the most competitive colleges in the U.S. come from the bottom half of the income distribution. And while colleges and universities have enacted ways for students coming from lower income backgrounds to seek higher education without the barrier of money, praising them as institutions increasing access reflects a limited civic imagination because colleges tend to still fall short. 

This is a fact that Jack said he had to come to terms with.

“An admission letter and generous financial aid do not a diverse college or school of medicine make,” Dr. Jack said. “Access ain’t inclusion.”

Jack’s work and personal experience in this field led him to both write a book and coin the term “The Privileged Poor.” The term is used to describe a demographic of lower income undergraduate students who come to college after attending boarding and/or preparatory schools. Much of Jack’s research compared this group of students to what he calls the “Doubly Disadvantaged," or lower-income undergraduate students who come from local high schools

By creating discussions around these terms, Jack said the conversation can move away from individual differences and focus more on structural inequalities like racism and poverty.

Jack said his research “pushes back against the dangerous downplaying of how prolonged exposures to savage inequities in our neighborhoods and in our schools affect how students navigate college and professional programs.”

Jack also explained ways in which colleges and universities can better support students from lower income backgrounds, and much of it comes in the form of examining the specific situations they’ve come from and what they may have been through.

And according to Associate Dean for Diversity and Campus Inclusion for the College of Osteopathic Dr. Marita Gilbert, this idea of understanding others and “creating a beloved community” was championed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and is extremely important for how medicine is taught at a collegiate level.

“We want each of our students, as they go into their health professions, to be prepared to practice excellently but to also have a cultural awareness and humility,” Gilbert said.

She also spoke to a sense of perceived elitism associated with students studying health sciences, as people tend to think students in the career have a certain kind of privilege. However, she said that many students in these fields of study are in fact first generation college students and may not have the knowledge of how to navigate a college curriculum

At MSU in particular, 31-45% of students in the college of veterinary medicine are first generation students, Abreu said

Because lessons and skills do not fall evenly across the population of high school students — especially those growing up in underfunded schools and neighborhoods — Jack said that “colleges cannot assume that all students have been permitted the chance to practice these skills, let alone master them before they set foot on campus.”

An example he used was the idea of office hours, or rather the idea that there are many students who enter college not knowing what office hours are, as they come from areas where the term simply isn’t used. The result he’s seen, he said, was students often being afraid to reach out for help or not even knowing it’s available

“We must ensure that social class symbolically and materially does not keep lower-income students in secondary positions at these first rate institutions,” Jack said. “Let's stop making assumptions about what students know and what they can afford.”

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