From left: Victoria Ezekwemba (2T3 Representative), Kay-Ann Ormsby (2T5 Class Representative), Events Director (Iman Abdulhadi), Theodora Udounwa (2T4 Class Representative), Zaijah Thomas (President), Obinna Okafor-Justin (Finance Director), Oluwadamilola (Dami) Sogbesan (Marketing Director), Ayub Hashi (Secretary), Betelehem Gulilat (Content Director), Mariam Ali (Vice President) Not pictured: Hamza Farah (Events Director)

Black Pharmacy Students’ Association will mentor and support students to help increase diversity of student population

A new student-led group aims to improve the experience of Black students and foster a sense of belonging and inclusion at the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy. The Black Pharmacy Students’ Association (BPSA), which launched in January 2022 with 11 members from diverse backgrounds, hopes that their efforts will increase the rates of Black pharmacy professionals and even improve care for Black patients.

“Increasing representation and diversity within the pharmacy program is important. It can be difficult to put yourself in a place where you don’t see anyone who looks like you or know of other people who have paved the path before,” says Zaijah Thomas, third-year PharmD student and president of the BPSA. “We hope to mentor and support young Black students who are interested in the profession so that we can increase the number of Black pharmacy professionals.”

During Thomas’ undergraduate degree at Western University, she had been a member of the Black Students’ Association (BSA) there and valued its supportive community. When she began her PharmD degree, she hoped that the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy would have a similar group so that she could connect with other Black students, but nothing like it existed.

So Thomas, with her friends and classmates Mariam Ali and Betelehem Gulilat, decided to create one.

“We thought this would be a good opportunity to bring more Black students together in pharmacy program,” says Gulilat, third-year PharmD student and the BPSA’s content director. “When we reached out to other Black students in the program, many were excited to join the club and see the impact we can have.”

One of the groups main goals is to help build a community and foster a sense of belonging for Black students in the Faculty.

“I’d never been to a school or program this big, and one of the first things I did was look around for people who look like me,” says Ali, third-year PharmD student and vice-president of the BPSA. “Part of our goal in starting the club is that people who come to this program can have somewhere they can go for resources and support and feel like they belong.”

In the fall of 2021, Iman Abdulhadi, a first-year PharmD student, joined the team of co-founders. Ali had mentored Abdulhadi during the application process, providing valuable support and advice about the program and application.

“When I was looking into pharmacy, I was lucky to know Mariam and have someone I could relate to and ask questions about the application process,” says Abdulhadi, the BPSA’s events director. “Being mentored by someone I was more comfortable with made the application, and my transition to the program, so much easier.”

BPSA aims to build mentorship opportunities to support more diversity in pharmacy

Knowing personally the importance of mentorship in helping younger students succeed, one of the BPSA’s main interests is to mentor early-year students, and even undergraduates and high school students interested in pharmacy, to provide resources, support and networking opportunities to help increase diversity in the Faculty and the pharmacy profession more broadly.

Given the small number of Black students currently in the pharmacy program, they also want to raise awareness and understanding among all students about the experiences and obstacles that Black pharmacy students and professionals may face.

“One of our goals is to increase the awareness and raise education to other faculty and students who are not part of this minority group so they can understand our experiences, hear our voices, see our faces and try to get a better understanding of the things we go through,” says Thomas.

“In that way, we hope to encourage people who don’t identify as Black to participate as allies, which would be impactful for their Black classmates,” says Theodora Udounwa, the BPSA’s 2T4 class representative.

As part of that goal, their first initiative is a social media campaign for Black History Month, highlighting Black pharmacists and pharmacy students and their experiences at school and in the profession to help generate conversation and reflection.

They also plan to organize more academic, career-related, and social events in the future, COVID restrictions permitting. These could include outreach events to high school students and panel discussions with Black pharmacists. In the long-term, they plan to grow the association, and collaborate with Black students associations at U of T and across Canada on different initiatives. There is also an interest to attract more diverse guest speakers and to include Black patient experiences in the curriculum.

 “It’s great to see students coming together to create an association that will help foster peer-to-peer support and community,” says Natalie Crown, Director of the PharmD Program, Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy. “At a program level, we are also exploring new ways to increase representation from communities that have historically been underrepresented in pharmacy.” 

"As the next generation of health care professionals, we want to help ensure our Faculty and education better reflect the communities that we’re going to serve.”

For example, the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy has recently established an Undergraduate Award for Black and Indigenous Students, with funding for the awards donated by staff and faculty. In addition, the Faculty’s first Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Working Group has developed a series of recommendations including ways to ensure the Faculty’s programs and curricula prepare graduates to meet the needs of diverse communities. The recommendations are currently being reviewed by Dean Lisa Dolovich and will form the basis of an action plan that will be used to support Faculty-wide EDI efforts. 

Ultimately, the BPSA members hope that their work to mentor and support Black students and educate the broader student population about Black experiences will not only increase the number of Black pharmacy professionals, but will also help all pharmacists provide better care to Black and other underrepresented communities.

“We live in Toronto, one of the most diverse cities in the world,” says Abdulhadi. “And as the next generation of health care professionals, we want to help ensure our Faculty and education better reflect the communities that we’re going to serve.”

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