Dr. Erika Shavers, a psychiatrist, stood in the foyer of Cheney Mansion in Oak Park on April 7, chatting for the first time with Monica Powell, a sophomore at Christ the King Jesuit College Preparatory School in Austin.

Powell wants to be a doctor like Shavers when she gets older. This nascent relationship, both African American women know, could be vital if the mentee has any chance of one day donning that white rob like her mentor.

“I had somebody help me get a foot in the door when I got to medical school, so I’m just here to pass it on,” said Shavers, who specializes in addiction and who noted that she once worked briefly at Circle Family Healthcare Network in Austin.

“I once wanted to be a surgeon, but it’s like maybe I’ll look at something else in the field,” Powell said. “So, I’m not sure what my specialization will be right now, but I’m expecting to learn a lot. I know I have to ask a lot of questions. I just want to get the gist of what it takes to be a doctor.”

Over the next months and years, Shavers will be a ready-made mentor to Powell, who as a participant in the I Am Abel Foundation — the organization responsible for bringing the two women together — will go through an extensive regimen of premedical school training.

The Foundation is the brainchild of Dr. LaMenta Conway, a physician at Elmhurst Hospital who also teaches students at Loyola Medical School and Hines Veterans Administration. Conway founded the nonprofit less than a year ago.

Conway, a more than 17-year physician who specializes in internal and pediatric medicine, put herself through Rush Medical College with three children who ranged in age from 6 months to 3 years old.

“As a mother of really young children and a wife, medical school would be an incredible undertaking,” Conway has noted. “I wasn’t sure if it could be done. Who goes to medical school with three babies under three years old? In my moment of doubt, my mother said, ‘You do … that’s who does it!'”

For her inaugural class of mentees, Conway selected around 25 minority high school and college students from the city and suburbs, each of whom was paired with a practicing doctor. Most of the doctors specialize in fields the students are seeking to break into. Although the overwhelming majority of I Am Abel participants are female, among the several male participants there was something of a rarity — twin African American males with elite educations and concrete plans. 

Rashad and Sharad Crosby both attend the University of Chicago and both aspire to become doctors. Sharad’s mentor, Dr. Khalilah Gates, is on Christ the King’s board of directors.

“I think one of the most important things about mentorship is just being able to guide these young people and help them understand what’s facing them,” Gates said. “If you know what you’re walking into it’s easier to tackle it. And if you have somebody cheering for you while you’re going through it, that makes you all the more successful and it makes the path a lot easier.”

The point, the dozens of doctors who attended the April 7 ceremony noted, is to create templates for success that may be lacking for many minority students with serious ambitions of breaking into the medical field — students like Temi Oho.

Oho has wanted to be a doctor since she was in grade school. Her mother, perhaps sensing her daughter’s potential, pushed her through the prestigious St. Ignatius College Prep, often making her do extra loads of homework “to keep my mind sharp,” Oho recalled. Then it was on to Hamilton College in New York — simply a weigh station, in Oho’s mind, before inevitably enrolling into medical school.

While at Hamilton, however, Oho had to juggle her coursework with the demands of a job. Her grades slipped. Her first meeting with a premed counselor, she hoped, would be just the kind of corrective she needed to get back on track.

“Up until this point I never had anybody tell me the ins and outs of applying to medical school,” she said. “I just knew I wanted to go there.”

Oho said she expected her counselor to “tell me all the things I needed to know to go on to medical school.” When she walked into the office and “before I could even sit down,” Oho recalled, “She says, ‘I don’t think you can apply to medical school and don’t think that because you’re African American you’re going to get into med school.’

“She said, ‘Your grades aren’t that great.’ But when I asked her how I can improve, she was like, ‘At best, you can be a nurse or physician’s assistant.’ There’s nothing wrong with those professions, but they weren’t my passion. For a week straight I felt very, very defeated. I didn’t know what to do.”

Oho said she ignored her counselor’s advice and channeled her mother, slogging her way through the rest of her college coursework and a mind-numbing regimen of postgraduate classes before applying to one medical school, where she earned acceptance — but only on the condition that she receive a certain percentage in a particular course. She missed the mark by around two percentage points — her dreams of getting into medical school temporarily dashed.

But then she met Conway, who introduced her to two other prominent African American physicians in Chicago — Dr. John Bradley and Dr. Fred G. Richardson. The two men have become legendary for mentoring many of the city’s black doctors.

“”Dr. Conway told me her story and gave me the motivation to keep moving and from there I met Dr. Bradley and the first thing he said to me was, ‘You’re going to be a doctor, don’t worry.’ Then I met Dr. Richardson, and he told me you’re going to have to be the best, because nobody’s going to give you anything.’ From there, they put me into a pre-matriculation program,” she said.

Now, Oho is finishing up her first year of medical school.