Black USC medical program leader spurred Black students to attend. When she was removed, students rallied
Sadie Welch decided she wanted a career in occupational therapy while she was a sophomore at Louisiana State University. Of the six schools she applied to, USC’s program was the only one she saw helmed by a woman of color. Dr. Arameh Anvarizadeh, or Dr. A, as she’s affectionately called by students, was the director of admissions at USC’s Chan Division of Occupational Therapy.
Welch, who is Black, positively describes her first encounter with Anvarizadeh at an info session she attended. “She has this energy that you can feel from over the phone, over Zoom and in person. She’s so motivating and encouraging and bold at the same time,” said Welch.
Welch’s class of 2022 was the most diverse class at USC Chan to date. Prior to Anvarizadeh’s creation of a holistic application process at USC Chan, that focuses on the whole applicant and not just certain factors, Black students only made up 3% of the student population. Welch’s class was 17% Black. So when Anvarizadeh was suddenly removed from her position, some students said they felt betrayed because they had applied specifically because of her position and presence.
“When I first heard that she was stepping down from her position, I was shocked because she doesn’t strike me as a quitter, you know?” Welch said.
Students later learned that Anvarizadeh was not stepping down. Instead, she was demoted to the role of associate professor while on protected medical leave.
The unanimous decision rendered by two deans and a professor shocked faculty and USC students. Students created an Instagram account in support of Dr. A. The account, USC Chan OT Justice Collective, aims to raise awareness about their beloved professor’s removal and to advocate for her return as director of admissions.
Anvarizadeh expressed her confusion and hurt with USC’s decision in a March interview with Diverse, a higher education magazine. “There was really no rationale. My performance was high; my merit review was stellar. There’s nothing you can pinpoint that’s tangible,” she said.
“When you look at the work that I created, one would question if it was too much diversity that was added into the program,” said Anvarizadeh. “Maybe that just makes people uncomfortable.”
Medical professions like occupational therapy often lack diversity. This can make it difficult for Blacks and Latines to break into the field and find mentors to guide them along the way. According to a recent study, about 85% of the country’s occupational therapists are white. Moreover, occupational therapy programs, researchers concluded, don’t provide enough support or resources for Black and Latine students enrolled to “sustain their persistence.”
“I have aspirations and I have goals. That’s why I came to USC,” said student Zoe Saunders. “But, then do I continue to support a program that isn’t going to support me?”
While the medical field may be working to diversify, there’s still much work to be done. “Our profession gives off a false sense of positivity all the time,” said Saunders. “Many like to operate as if it’s a safe space and everyone is accepted. [Dr. A’s] removal and the actions that followed from administration showed astronomically that we are still othered.”
Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science’s mission is “cultivating diverse health professions leaders who are dedicated to social justice and health equity for underserved populations through outstanding education, clinical service, and community engagement.” Charles Drew is California’s only HBCU and one of the only HBCUs that is also a member of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities.
“I actually grew up about probably eight miles west of Charles Drew University,” said nursing program graduate Beverly Ochoa. “I actually moved away from the South Central area of Los Angeles, but I thought, well maybe Charles Drew will give me a chance at nursing.”
Ochoa said helping and providing a service to the community that raised her is important. “The fact that I grew up in this city, was able to obtain my degree, and now hopefully can go back and serve the community is so special to me,” she said.
CDU students are taught mostly by professionals who look like them and share similar life experiences. More than 40% full-time faculty members are Black, 5.5% of faculty are Latine and 27% are Asian.
“I think it’s important to be well-rounded, culturally sensitive to others’ emotions, backgrounds and traditions, and I think Charles Drew does a really great job at that,” said Ochoa. “Not only within our cohort but there’s a lot of diversity, among our professors, directors and overall university personnel who were there to support you.”
When schools create a diverse environment, it benefits everybody. The American Sociological Association explained that when institutions have an increase in Black faculty and create safe and inclusive on campus environments, it directly correlates to a rise in retention rates.
“Having a sense of belonging is critical, and part of what has happened in the last few years is this sort of heightening of these culture wars that create even more questioning of, ‘Do I really belong on campus?’” said Steve Colón, CEO of Bottom Line, recently told CBS. Colón’s organization provides counseling Black students and other historically-marginalized com Black and other marginalized students get to and through college.”
There are organizations trying to increase diversity in medical fields. Dr. Dale Okorodudu said he created Black Men White Coats with the goal of introducing a newer generation of Black men to the medical field.
“The biggest thing is the lack of role models,” Okorodudu told Local Profile in 2020. “Lack of mentors in the field, individuals that look like them. We have a lot of young Black men who have so much potential, but they don’t see people like them in the medical field. You gravitate toward what’s like you and what’s around you.”
Emergency physician Dr. Uche Blackstock, 45, said she knew becoming a doctor was a career possibility in her predominantly-Black neighborhood from a young age because she saw Black professionals as the norm. “I grew up in a neighborhood in Brooklyn where I was surrounded by Black doctors. I had that representation…” said Blackstock.
Blackstock said that it wasn’t until she was a high schooler that she realized how few Black doctors there actually are. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, 5.7% of physicians identify as Black.
While attending Harvard Medical School, Blackstock said the Office of Multicultural Affairs was a safe space for her and fellow Black students. “During our breaks, we would hang out there and talk to the Black professors about whatever issues we’re having,” said Blackstock. She said she recounts some of these experiences in her upcoming book, Legacy: A Black Physician Reckons with Racism in Medicine. “There would be no way that we would’ve finished without them.”
On June 29, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against race-conscious policies as they pertain to college admissions. While some schools have publicly stated they will continue their mission of making sure their schools are diverse, many celebrated the fact that they no longer have to participate in affirmative action.
“When places such as Florida are trying to get rid of DEI offices that we know are invaluable, it’s incredibly disheartening. It’s hard for us to get in because of all these systemic barriers, and then once we get in, these institutions are often inhospitable. They are not inclusive of us,” said Blackstock. “These offices and their faculty and staff serve such an invaluable role in making sure that we feel seen, heard and appreciated.”
USC President Carol Folt recently released a statement expressing how the university will continue to practice DEI standards and uplift the school’s diverse population. But, many worry this isn’t enough with USC’s Black population dwindling just under 6%.
“Taking that person or those people out of those positions and making them feel unwelcome is also sending the same message to your students,” Saunders said in reference to Anvarizadeh’s demotion at USC Chan.
To those just starting out in STEM careers, “I see you, and I hear you,” said Blackstock.“I understand why you would be worried and concerned but know that there are people out there like me. There are organizations full of advocates who care very, very deeply about making sure that we keep our higher ed institutions diverse and inclusive and equitable,” she said, “and we won’t stop.”