Emmanuel McNeely says that like many young African Americans, he didn't have much of a chance to become a doctor, let alone a surgeon.
But at age 17, he got a job at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America. Still, he wasn't sure of his professional direction.
"I knew I liked chemistry but that was it. It wasn't until I shadowed a surgeon that I said, 'Wow, this is possible and I want to do this,'" he told CBN News.
He would continue his studies at Palm Beach Atlantic University (PBA) and is now pursuing his doctorate in medicine at Florida Atlantic University's Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine where he plans to complete his degree in 2023.
This year, he's taking time away from classes to conduct a second year of spine surgery research at Johns Hopkins University with the goal of becoming an orthopedic surgeon.
It's a field where African Americans are noticeably absent. Just three percent of US orthopedic surgeons are of African American descent.
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They're also disproportionately represented in medical schools across the country. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) says they're "woefully underrepresented compared with other medical student groups," and that's in spite of a concerted effort to achieve diversity with holistic admissions processes.
In the 2018-19 academic year, African Americans made up just 8.4% of medical school applicants.
The AAMC says there's concern that structural racism and stereotyping black males is at the root of the issue although it believes that strategies like pipeline programs and mentoring can help.
McNeely and his wife, Sa'Rah McNeely, founded the Dr. M.D. Project to help address the gap and come alongside other minority students to achieve their dreams in medicine.
Their vision began when they went back to their childhood neighborhoods in the Chicago area after college graduation and discovered that many black students in public schools had little or no information on how they could begin careers.
"We go into these schools and we see highly talented teenagers, middle school students," he said. "But all of them say 'I didn't know this was possible. I never heard of a black doctor before. You're the first person who looks like me in this field."
McNeely said that after he and his wife heard that over and over they started the project in 2014.
It provides students with practical tips and mentors to help them succeed. The program includes workshops and a new workbook that the McNeely's co-authored.
"African American doctors are scarce. They're far and few between. So if you want to go into medicine and you're in the black community, you don't typically have mentors," said McNeely.
The Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU) recognized McNeely's work this year, awarding him its 2021 Young Alumni Award for his efforts to encourage others in their career goals.
CCCU president Shirley Hoostra noted his commitment to mentoring even while pursuing his own studies.
"Emmanuel embodies the ultimate goal of Christian higher education: to help students integrate fully their faithful commitment to Jesus into their profession and to make a difference in the world," she said.
McNeely credited PBA with teaching him how to integrate his faith and work. "Whether it was prayer in the classroom, cancer research in the lab, or worship in the chapel, PBA education showed me how to use my life to honor God in all settings," he said.