Keeping Kids En Pointe

Violeta Ashby
SMDEP, Class of 2004
It’s very easy to walk away from a medical career when you can’t get the support you need.

Children of color are disproportionately affected by school disciplinary policies and inexperienced teachers, according to a March 2014 joint report by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and the Department of Justice.

In announcing the data, Attorney General Eric Holder summarized the deleterious effects on children from disadvantaged populations, saying, “Every data point represents a life impacted and a future potentially diverted or derailed,” he said.

Lack of educational opportunity and health disparities are interconnected—a reality that drives the work of Violeta Ashby.

Ashby, 32, has devoted much of her life to educating and mentoring underserved kids. Poised to complete her MD at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School (NJMS), she will be a pediatric resident at New York University School of Medicine in the fall of 2014.

It hasn’t been an easy road. “I was told by my undergrad advisers that I couldn’t do this, even though I knew I could,” she says. 

Undeterred, the alumna of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Minority Medical Education Program (MMEP, now SMDEP) stuck to her guns—and today shares her insight and experience with other aspiring physicians.

“It’s very easy to walk away from a medical career when you can’t get the support you need,” she explains. “I couldn’t stand by and watch other people go through that.”

A Safe Place

Ashby’s penchant for mentorship surfaced long before she decided on medicine. At age 16, she helped to organize a summer program in Aspen, Colo., aimed at motivating inner-city teens from around the United States to pursue higher education and rise above issues like drug and alcohol abuse and urban violence.

“When you’re the son of a doctor who’s the son of a doctor who’s the son of a doctor, you’re set in terms of getting into medical school. I didn’t know anyone, and my parents didn’t either.” 

Since then, the New Jersey native’s efforts have ranged from teaching dance to special-education students in New York City public schools to organizing and running an outreach program for Newark youth living with HIV.

“Their parents and guardians discouraged these kids from talking about their ‘secret,’ which was a huge weight to bear on their own. We tried to create a safe place where they could talk about their disease and be normal teenagers with each other,” she says, referring to the HIV-positive kids.

Up through her teens, she was certain her life’s calling was as a dancer. “Unfortunately, I didn’t get very far!” laughs Ashby. Entering the University of Maryland at College Park, she had a vague idea that she’d parlay her love of animals into a veterinary career. That, too, was not to be. “It turned out I was allergic to a lot of the animals I would have been treating,” she explains.

An acquaintance suggested that Ashby’s affinity for children would make pediatrics a good fit. And something clicked.

“Step Back and Watch Me”

Ashby was already a junior in college when she decided to become a physician, so she had a lot of ground to cover in a short time. “I was taking these very rigorous courses all at once so that I could graduate somewhere close to on time,” she says. Although it took her an extra year, she left College Park with a bachelor’s degree in biology. But other challenges lay ahead.

“When you’re the son of a doctor who’s the son of a doctor who’s the son of a doctor, you’re set in terms of getting into medical school,” says Ashby. “I didn’t know anyone, and my parents didn’t either.” Her mother, born and raised in Mexico, and her father, a Julliard-trained musician, also had trouble grasping the labyrinthine process of applying to medical school and could offer little assistance. 

To make matters worse, her University of Maryland advisers told her she wasn’t cut out to be a physician. “They kept telling me, ‘Maybe you should consider a different field,’” she says. “They probably saw people like me not make it through to the end and thought they were helping me avoid a big letdown.”

She adds, “What’s sad is that many of my peers were in the same situation, and today they’re not in medicine.”

For Ashby, though, the naysayers prompted a realization that proving people wrong is a driving force in her career. “You think there’s something I can’t do?” she declares. “Step back and watch me!”

Through the University of Maryland’s relationship with the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in nearby Bethesda, Ashby encountered an internist who was, in her words, “the first minority doctor I’d ever met,” she says. He served as a sounding board, let her shadow him at the hospital, and even arranged a research project to help her and another student get started in the medical field. Providentially, told also her about MMEP.

Shifting Focus

At the NJMS MMEP site, Ashby discovered a wellspring of support. “The best thing about it was finding people from disadvantaged minority groups in one place, all trying to do the same thing,” she recalls. “The people I met at MMEP understood what it took—the struggle to get into med school and stay there, in spite of financial and other challenges.”

“Doing MMEP in one of the poorest, most dangerous cities in the country, where a lot of the population is very sick, instantly opened my eyes.”

The program also helped prepare her to take the famously difficult MCAT—“I couldn’t afford to do the Kaplan program, so the MMEP training was huge”—and offers reinforcement even today.

“The director, Dolores Anthony, is also my mentor at NJMS. She checks up on me and wants to know what I’m doing, how my exams went…my parents didn’t understand why the process was so hard, so she became my family within the field.”

“When I joined the program I was sure I would do primary care,” she adds. But lectures on humanism and community outreach planted a seed that would later reach full bloom. “Doing the program in Newark—one of the poorest, most dangerous cities in the country, where a lot of the population is very sick—instantly opened my eyes,” she says. “I worked with children who had HIV and never did anything to acquire it. They were just born with it. My whole focus shifted.”

Bolstered by encouragement and fresh possibilities, and impressed by NJMS itself, Ashby returned to Maryland with renewed purpose. Although it would be another four years before she began her medical training, her course was set that summer.

“It was a life-changing experience,” she says.

Sincere and Earnest Commitment

Ashby’s youth-focused work continued after she completed her undergraduate degree. Drawing upon her lifelong love of dancing, she volunteered as a dance instructor in the New York City Public School System, where she taught special-education students from underserved communities. She also signed up for Volunteer In Service To America (VISTA), an AmeriCorps program, where she spent a year working in Washington Heights’ PS 152 to ensure that students had their mandated screenings and immunizations.

“My first and most important job was to make sure every student was up to date on vaccinations,” says Ashby. The school’s primarily Dominican population and attendant language barriers could be obstacles to children getting the vaccinations required by the school system. “Parents thought their kids were covered because they had vaccinations back home, but those immunizations weren’t in exact accordance with the U.S. vaccination schedule.”

An equally vital part of Ashby’s VISTA work was developing action plans and scheduling health education workshops to tackle health disparities in the school. She also put together programs to promote healthy eating and exercise in the community.

After VISTA, and following several sojourns to Denmark—where she participated in a research program and also met her husband—Ashby was accepted to NJMS. Arriving on campus, she immediately sought out community outreach programs and became a student mentor.

“I made a point of mentoring students who were newly interested in medicine because I felt I’d been left so alone,” she explains. Her own mentor, Dolores Anthony, praises her efforts, saying, “Whether she’s participating in a health fair or mentoring underserved children, Violeta demonstrates her sincere and earnest commitment to making this world a better one for everyone.”

Awareness Leads to Action

As she prepares to embark on the final leg of her medical training at New York University, Ashby reflects on the program that launched her on the journey.

“MMEP helped me gain a foothold in the field of medicine.”

“MMEP helped me gain a foothold in the field of medicine,” she says. “On top of that, I made lifelong friends and found opportunities I wasn’t given anywhere else.”

Beginning with her MMEP experience in Newark, and continuing with her volunteer efforts there and in Manhattan, she’s developed a keen awareness of the ways in which racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic inequities shape the contours of children’s lives. She’ll bring that understanding to her work in pediatrics, with an emphasis on inner-city populations.

“My work with HIV teens in Newark is what kindled my interest in pediatrics, and especially adolescent medicine,” she says. “It’s where I belong.”