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Scholarship Winner | Priya Sury

An interest in cultural barriers to health care drew Rhodes Scholar Priya Sury to the University of Minnesota for medical school. (Photo courtesy of Priya Sury)

Many Rhodes to success

First-year University of Minnesota medical student Priya Sury’s volunteer experiences have taken her from public school classrooms in St. Louis, Missouri, to a government-run maternity clinic in the Dominican Republic.

As disparate as those experiences were, Sury says they both challenged her to examine the role culture plays in patients’ access to and experience with medical care.

For the next year or two, the Roseville, Minnesota, native will have the opportunity to delve further into such issues as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in England. “I am interested in cultural beliefs and practices and ideas that affect people’s perceptions and use of medicine,” she explains.

While volunteering in the St. Louis schools, Sury worked with many students who were Mexican immigrants. She saw firsthand how lack of care and cultural barriers between providers and patients affected how the students learned. When students showed up at school dealing with untreated health problems, or worried about their family members’ health problems, Sury observed how it negatively affected their ability to learn.

“It made me think about how my life could best be used to reduce these disparities,” she says.

Such interests drew her to medicine, and ultimately, to the University of Minnesota. As an undergraduate at Washington University in St. Louis, Sury studied Spanish and anthropology. Now she will have the opportunity to combine her interests in culture and cross-cultural communication with her medical studies.

“What’s even more important to me is how someone who comes to a clinic in Minneapolis brings with them a whole set of beliefs about the care they are getting,” she says. “And those beliefs are really important in how they’ll respond to medical care.”

Giving a voice to the unheard

Sury saw evidence of culture clash when she spent several summers volunteering in the Dominican Republic. There she helped to teach women about how HIV is transmitted from mother to baby, and more important, how to prevent that from happening. She was surprised to detect racism at play in the clinic, where, she says, medical providers treated Haitian immigrants unfairly.

“There was a language barrier, and a lot of people were falling through cracks because of lack of respect for the minority group.”

During her first year in medical school, Sury has become involved in student groups devoted to providing care to the underserved. The University and the Twin Cities community as a whole, she says, are committed to providing care to such populations through mobile clinics for people who live on the streets and in homeless shelters; the free, student-run Phillips Neighborhood Clinic; and Minneapolis’s Pillsbury House. For cases that require more care than can be provided at the mobile or free clinics, patients can visit the Community-University Health Care Center, which provides care for low-income families.

But in a resource-rich country like the United States, she is disturbed by health care disparities. “We have a lot of resources here [in this country], but there are still a lot of people falling through the cracks, and that’s why I came to the U of M,” Sury says.

She believes that a strong sense of social responsibility and commitment to medical humanism sets the University apart. “A lot of mentors — faculty members — their passion is taking care of the underserved. Not all schools would give such importance to people who generally aren’t heard in society,” she says. “It says a lot about the Medical School but also a lot about the [students] it attracts.”

While Sury is a standout student, in many ways she represents the dedication that all University of Minnesota medical students have to serving others, says Kathleen Watson, M.D., associate dean for students and student learning.

“It’s a requirement of admission to demonstrate a commitment to improving the human condition,” Watson says. “Priya has done this in everything she has done. What stands out is that she is one determined woman.”

A scholarship for medical students bears the names of University of Minnesota boosters Violet and alumnus Herman

Scholarships — making altruism possible

Before she heads to Oxford, Sury will be joining a group of like-minded medical students on a trip to northern India this summer to provide care to underserved Tibetans.

For many students, scholarships help make such opportunities possible. Sury, for example, is a recipient of the Herman “Tiny” and Violet Drill Scholarship, administered by the Minnesota Medical Foundation.

Drill, a Medical School alumnus (Class of 1929) and a longtime internist in Hopkins, Minnesota, was always a booster of the University and led a fundraising campaign for the Medical School when he was in his 80s, says his son Frederick “Fritz” Drill, M.D., also an alumnus. “Near the end of his life, he pledged money to the U of M, and when my parents died, that money became the scholarship.”

Such support has allowed a grateful Sury to explore larger social and cultural issues that affect the provision of medical care. “Scholarships are important because they allow medical students the freedom to think about bigger issues than how they are going to pay back their debt,” she says.

“There’s a potential to impact a huge number of people … because the student can take the time to get involved and be exposed to these issues, rather than worrying about having to work.”

By Sara Martin, a writer and editor in the Academic Health Center at the University of Minnesota

To find out how you can support Medical School scholarships, contact Teri McIntyre at the Minnesota Medical Foundation, 612-625-5976, 800-922-1663, or t.mcintyre@mmf.umn.edu.

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