When Ebony Page-Phillips was applying to medical schools, she was looking for a place close to her hometown of St. Louis, a place with a curriculum that emphasized small group learning and a place that matched its graduates in top residencies. The University of Missouri fit the bill.
But before she decided, Page-Phillips, who is African American, wanted to make sure she would feel valued and supported as an underrepresented-in-medicine minority student. That’s when she began talking to Robin Clay, the School of Medicine’s manager of diversity and inclusion initiatives.
“A lot of places had a tab for diversity on their website, but they weren’t doing much work and they didn’t have many programs in place to support students who were coming from underrepresented backgrounds,” Page-Phillips said. “Mizzou was actively pursuing these initiatives, was getting input from the student body on ways to improve and they had Robin.”
Flash forward five years, and Page-Phillips, MD ’21, is quite busy as an MU Health Care emergency medicine resident physician and a new mom, but she still finds time to stop by Clay’s office just to chat. Over the last decade, Clay has helped MU greatly improve its percentage of underrepresented minority medical students, but the story behind the statistics is the personal relationships Clay builds and maintains with students.
“His job is recruitment, but he’s also a master of retention of students, particularly students of color, making sure they feel comfortable and supported here,” Page-Phillips said.
Clay, a native of Pasadena, California, came to Missouri in 2003 to attend Lincoln University in Jefferson City. After graduating and spending three years working in student affairs at Lincoln, he made the short trip up Highway 63 to join the admissions office at the MU School of Medicine as a recruiter in 2011. His mission was to increase the numbers of students from racial and ethnic populations that are underrepresented in medicine compared to the general population.
“We want to create the best learning environment for all of the students here,” Clay said. “There are many articles out there that speak to how having diversity improves learning outcomes for everyone — not just students of color — just because of constantly getting opportunities to expand your thinking.
“The end goal is to make our med school representative of what the patient population will be so we have enough physicians to serve these underrepresented populations. What we know is patients who are treated by physicians who look like them are more likely to comply with treatment plans and are more likely to come and see the doctor. We also need young children of color to see themselves as physicians at an early age so they may access resources early in life, yielding more physicians of color in the workforce.”
Clay said his first step toward that goal was to recruit in his own backyard by becoming the advisor for MU’s Minority Association for Prehealth Students (MAPS). He started holding the group’s meetings in Acuff Auditorium so those undergraduate students could see themselves in the School of Medicine and meet faculty, staff and students. Then he expanded his scope and started developing relationships with undergraduates and premed advisors at historically Black colleges and universities that were sending a lot of students to medical schools — particularly Xavier University in New Orleans and Morehouse and Spelman colleges in Atlanta — and at predominantly Hispanic schools in Florida.
While Clay was making personal connections, the School of Medicine was expanding its premed outreach programs to engage with underrepresented minority and socioeconomically disadvantaged students. Mizzou MedPrep, which began in 2011 as a workshop to help students navigate the medical school application process, has quadrupled in size and scope. Pathways to Success (PAWS), which is patterned after the Rural Track Pipeline Program, now guarantees a spot in the School of Medicine to students who complete the program and meet the requirements, which are the same as same as the Rural Track’s standards.
Clay said those efforts and several other initiatives helped MU reach critical mass in 2017, when underrepresented minorities made up more than 10% of the incoming class.
“At that point, we had enough students here so people wouldn’t feel completely alone and isolated as a person of color,” he said. “We could get more feedback from them. We could look at outcomes that showed their success.”
That class, which included Page-Phillips, was important not just for its numbers but also the passion of its students. They became Clay’s best advocates, getting on the phone with applicants and letting them know the school’s commitment to diversity and inclusion was real.
“Six to 10 folks in my class tried to help Robin figure out what are things we can do to keep this momentum up,” Page-Phillips said. “He was super important in recruiting a lot of folks in our class, particularly people who were coming from the coasts and previously had not really known much about Mizzou. Once he got the ball rolling, he got us to help him. That helped turn the corner for the next classes.”
The percentage of underrepresented minority students in M1 classes continued to grow, reaching a record high of 20% in 2021. The racial makeup of the student body of the medical school now reflects the state of Missouri, where many of the students will ultimately practice. But it is the quality of the people who make up those numbers and the relationships he builds with those people that bring Clay the most satisfaction.
“He’s authentic, and he truly cares,” said Andrea Simmons, who works closely with Clay as the director of Mizzou MedPrep. “He doesn’t recruit just for numbers. He recruits because he sees something in a student that will make a true difference in our school.”