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Blacks go to medical school abroad and return to the U.S. to practice
eon Daniels was working his way through college and scraping up money for the MCATs when he heard about a program that offered a free ride in medical school–if he went to Cuba.
“I always wanted to do medical school and this was the perfect opportunity,” said Daniels, a 31-year-old first-year student from Oakland, California. “It helped me not have to worry about paying loans back”
Daniels is one of about 100 American students–more than half of them black–enrolled in a Cuban government scholarship program at the Latin American School of Medicine. Started by Cuban President Fidel Castro in 2000, the program offers low-income students a free medical education in Cuba. In exchange, the students agree to go back to their American communities and offer medical care. The Congressional Black Caucus sent a delegation to Cuba in 2000 to meet with Castro and, after the subject of the underserved medical needs of those in American inner cities came up, he suggested the scholarship.
A cornerstone of Cuba’s international diplomacy is its medical outreach. In addition to the medical school scholarship, the country sends teams of doctors all over the world to respond to natural disasters, and Cuban doctors provide medical services to the underserved in Africa. According to Cuba’s foreign ministry, in 2006 the country was in the process of training 20,000 foreign students to be doctors, nurses, and dentists, most free of charge.
Rev. Lucius Walker, executive director of the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization, the New York-based group that receives and processes the applications for the scholarship, says the program is working to increase the number of African American, Latino, Asian American, and Native American doctors in the U.S. (According to the U.S. Census, only about 5% of U.S. doctors are black.)
“We see it as a tremendous opportunity to help provide quality medical care in the communities that are medically underserved,” Walker says.
The program will graduate its first class this summer, with the expectation that those students will take U.S. medical licensing exams and apply for entry into a U.S. residency program. Bill Kelly, director of credentialing and record services for the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates, says the commission has certified Cuban medical graduates for years. Last year, it certified 111 Cuban-trained graduates.
In acquiring that education, the students face challenges posed by the U.S blockade. In 2004, the Bush administration tightened rules on travel to Cuba, a move that threatened to force the students to leave the program. The Congressional Black Caucus obtained a special license allowing the students to stay legally.
Living conditions at the medical school are very different from those in medical schools in the U.S. Students share dorm rooms with 18 roommates. They take cold showers, and beans and rice is the standard diet. Classes are taught in Spanish.
But Daniels says it’s worth it. “I don’t know how I could have passed this opportunity up,” Daniels says. “The conditions, the food, the situation, it’s