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Doctor on Call

Between her teaching and her practice, Dr. Miriam Rossi has dispensed a huge dose of guidance and inspiration to minority students

1946, Medford, Mass. Summer holidays. Nine-year-old Miriam is setting up lawn chairs in a circle in her backyard. She is preparing to tutor neighbourhood children in English and math. She will hold reading sessions. She will teach them “strategies for learning.” They will forfeit an hour or two of swimming, of comic-book reading, of whatever mischief grade-schoolers devise during their few short months of freedom. And, believe it or not, they will voluntarily show up at her house again the next day. And the next.

Fifty-five years later, students are still showing up for Miriam Rossi’s counsel. As associate dean of student affairs at the Faculty of Medicine – a role from which she has just retired – Rossi advised students on academics, careers, personal concerns, finances, you name it. She also helped oversee admissions to the Faculty of Medicine and still practises adolescent medicine at the Hospital for Sick Children while teaching in the department of paediatrics. “Mentoring is just something that’s very natural,” she says. “You just do it. Why wouldn’t I? If I have the information and it could be helpful to somebody, why would I hold onto it?”

In her 13 years at student affairs, she has applied her pragmatic approach to mentoring minority students. Nine years ago, three black medical students approached Rossi and administrative co-ordinator Diana Alli regarding the lack of aboriginal and black students in U of T’s medical class. Along with a few residents, the group founded the Association for the Advancement of Blacks in Health Sciences and began holding outreach sessions in high schools. The following year, they formed the Summer Mentorship Program to impress upon black and aboriginal students that a career in health sciences was well within their reach.

The competitive program allows high school students to job-shadow a variety of health professionals – physicians, optometrists, pharmacists, nutritionists – for five weeks, as well as attend medical seminars and learn such skills as crafting a resumé. Students can spend a second summer working in a U of T research lab, and the third summer a lucky few participate in a research co-op at Temple University in Philadelphia. Woganee Filate (BSc 2000) completed all three tiers of the summer mentorship program – including a cardiovascular-research co-op at Temple – and has just started her master’s in community health and epidemiology at U of T. Not only did the program give her confidence, she says, but Rossi in particular inspired her to attend U of T: “I knew that if I was ever feeling like, ‘Oh, my first year is really hard,’ or ‘I don’t know if this is really what I want,’ Dr. Rossi – and her office – would be there to give me support and advice.”

After earning a master’s degree in nutrition and biochemistry from the University of Iowa in 1961, Rossi worked as an instructor at a Boston hospital, then as a teacher and a public health nutritionist in New York City. At 33, she was in the first graduating class of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. When her husband, an engineering executive, was transferred to Milan in 1973 (after stints in Montreal and the United States), Rossi had to earn an Italian medical degree – a challenge for someone who didn’t speak the language. “I had to write a thesis, learn Italian, go to classes, do oral exams because they didn’t have any written exams,” she says. A year after she began practising in Milan, her husband accepted a job in Toronto, and Rossi earned staff positions at the Hospital for Sick Children and U of T in 1981.

Rossi credits her mother, a designer in the Boston garment industry, and her father, a post-office supervisor, for encouraging her mentoring and academic interests. Both were voracious readers, and stocked her bookshelf with the poetry of Langston Hughes and such books as Up from Slavery, the autobiography of Booker T. Washington, an emancipated slave who struggled to bring freedom and education to his race. “This is a book that I think every kid should read – not just every black kid, but every kid – because it talks about someone who found himself in a difficult time, in a culture that did not appreciate him because of physical characteristics, and he had to use different ways to overcome that,” she says. “It also helps kids realize that they’re not the centre of the world; there are other people who’ve had it worse.”

While she is clearly hesitant to focus on the political history of her younger self – in fact she prefers it not be mentioned at all – the parallel between her own life’s challenges and her work with students is strong. She grew up in the pre-civil rights era, when women weren’t encouraged to go into medicine, and private medical schools weren’t giving them scholarships. “The cards were stacked against me in the States, to a certain extent, because I was black, but they were really stacked against me because I was a woman,” she says. “It’s a good thing, because what it did is make me understand I had to work harder – and smarter – to get certain things.

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