When Dr. Lisa Robinson graduated from the University of Toronto’s medical school in 1991, she was one of only two black students in her class. Twenty-six years later, it seems little has changed.

Chika Oriuwa, 23, is currently the only black student in her class of 259 first-year medical students, a fact that she finds surprising given that more than eight per cent of the Toronto population identifies as black, according to the 2011 census.

“We would expect to see a medical class that’s reflective of the population we are servicing,” Oriuwa told CTV’s Your Morning on Monday.

While there are many more women in med schools than there were 26 years ago, the classes are still not as racially diverse as the patients they serve.

It’s not just that there few black students accepted into medical school. Oriuwa says she was also the only black student in the pre-med, health sciences program she recently graduated.

With a chronically low number of black students applying to medical school, last week the university announced an initiative aimed at changing that.

The new Black Student Application Program aims to attract more black students into the medicine program while also working to retain them once they arrive by building a strong black community.

Dr. Robinson stresses that BSAP is not a quota program and the academic criteria are exactly the same as for all other applicants.

“But what is different for BSAP students is they will write an additional essay to give them the opportunity to tell us something about themselves that might not otherwise be captured in the application,” she said.

“In addition, members of the black community as well as black faculty and medical students will participate in the application file review and interview process.”

Finally, the program aims to foster a sense of community for students by providing them with additional mentorship opportunities.

The program is not mandatory, so black applicants can still choose to go through the regular process without disclosing their racial background.

The program will be in place for students applying in the fall of 2018. It’s modelled on a similar successful program introduced a few years ago for indigenous students.

Oriuwa says there are many obstacles that hinder black students from applying to medical school and most begin when students are a young age. Many lack the role models and social networks who could get spark their interest in science in the first place, while others have no access to mentors who could encourage them to think about joining medicine.

“It stems back to resources and the social capital that is provided to black students,” she said.

“So be it educational, financial or social, there is that deficit in terms of mentorship and the resources that are available to them.”

Without those mentors, many black students don’t have any insight into what the medical school journey might be like nor what it’s like to actually become a physician.

“They don’t actually see themselves reflected in the medical community so it’s not necessarily tangible for them. They don’t see it,” Oriuwa said.

“So that’s really what this initiative is trying to address.”