Equity in Education: A Conversation with José Manuel Carrillo-Castro, '24 and Mahtab Brar, '24 | OHSU Foundation

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José Manuel Carrillo-Castro, ’24 and Mahtab Brar, ’24 share common threads – they are children of immigrants, they are passionate about equitable health care, and they are medical students. As the son of South American parents, José Manuel is driven by community organizing for immigrant and social justice – now an approach shaping their medicine career. Channeling their own experience in navigating the education system, José Manuel was determined to support BIPOC students at OHSU. They joined a student-led directive that established the Excellence and Equity in Medical Education Endowment to provide access to medical education for diverse students with financial needs.   

Fueled by his South Asian heritage and community, Mahtab has a strong commitment to paying it forward. He is motivated by the research and future impact of telehealth – a potential method to providing care beyond Oregon and improving access. 

In this conversation, these future providers exude a passion for health equity – from helping asylum seekers receive the care they need to improving inclusive language in medical education. Hear José Manuel and Mahtab in conversation about mentorship, systemic changes in health care and their important projects in inclusion and equity. 

Read below for a transcript of José and Mahtab’s conversation. 

Transcript 

Mahtab: Well, it’s good to finally see you. I know we’ve tried to hang out a couple of times and play soccer when Copa America is going on. We tried to do something about that. It’s good to have a conversation and finally talk. 

José Manuel: Absolutely. It’s good to see you, too. 

Mahtab: I can go and kick us off. Who has had the biggest influence on your life and what kind of lessons have they taught you? 

José Manuel: There’s lots of different – [rather] specific people who have helped me grow significantly, but in different ways. The first ones that come to mind are my parents. Being an immigrant and knowing I wouldn’t be here without them, like more literal level, but that they worked to support me so that I could be a first-generation student in college and then eventually in med school. I always keep that close to heart. 

Another big influence would be Maru Mora, who is a community organizer in [the] immigrant justice field. I met with her in Bellingham when I went to school up there, and she has been a personal mentor in regards to immigrant justice, social justice, community organizer. She took me under her wing and taught me how to best do that work. And I was on several active campaigns with her, been to many rallies and spoken at the same rallies. She is a model for both justice, resilience and strength.  She is someone that I really respect and admire, and someone that gave me so much insight into the community and work building that will always be a part of my career and my life especially like now within medicine. 

And the last person would be Dr. Jeff Carroll, who studies the neuroscience and neurobiology of Huntington’s Disease in western Washington.  During an intro to neuro class in my freshman year, Dr. Carroll invited me to work in his lab with him. And from then on, he became a personal and academic mentor of sorts – very close to him. When I told him, I was really motivated and serious about what I wanted to do in neuroscience and in medicine, he provided me with so much support in the form of like connections, motivation. We did a lot of research together and [he] even called and checked in after my med school interviews to see, like, how things were. I felt so supported by him. If I ever end up in academics, that’s the kind of support I want to provide for the people that I teach or work with. 

Mahtab: Yeah, I think the threads you have resonate with me. The parent thing, as an immigrant, and as a first-generation immigrant, I think that’s something I definitely relate to a lot. The first person that comes to my mind is my dad. Because my dad, he’s been everything from a lawyer to a pizza delivery guy. 

I used to sell ice cream with him when I was a kid. I used to throw the Yellow Pages on people’s doorsteps. After he came back here [the U.S.], he ended up doing pharmacy school at the age 50.  It’s very motivating to be around that because it really showed me that you can do whatever you want to do – you just have to really put your mind to it. From a young age, he’s always motivated me. Like as a kid, I was like, “No, Dad, I want to play video games.” And he let me have that part of my life. But he also pushed me in ways that I probably would not have been pushed if he hadn’t made that effort to be there and facilitate my growth in that way. He’s one of the big figures in my life where those moments of doubt for me, he comes in. As I’m going through this journey to medical school and beyond, and I start thinking, am I really cut out for this? This is so hard, and I’m a bit overwhelmed. Going back to those moments helps me get through self-doubt. It’s like that’s a big lesson I learned from him.  

The other person I’d say I got a lot of valuable life lessons from was one of my old coaches. His name is Harry Tate from Grants Pass. That’s why we like to talk about mentorship, because that’s something I want to provide for future generations. Having that one person who gives you that boost to realize your potential is something that I really appreciate from my time with him. I mean that’s athletics, this is academic, a little different. But I think there’s a common thread there of that mentorship portion of having that support and someone who believes in you. This is the mentorship piece that is hard for first generation students.  

That kind of takes me to what I want to change about the health care system: diversity failing in terms of across socioeconomic status. For example, there are not as many kids that grew up a little underprivileged or maybe they were on food stamps or had to access those sorts of resources. And I think honestly, that’s one place that in terms of medical education, the health care system could change. 

Because there’s so many barriers – the MCAT, getting a mentor. I feel like it’s so prevalent because of the way the world works – those who have the resources, they just end up on top. It doesn’t matter if they were the best for that position or the most cut out; they had the resources; the other person didn’t have the resources and then there’s that gap. 

Mahtab: To pivot the conversation, let’s talk a little about the DEI projects you’re involved in. 

José Manuel: I am the diversity inclusion liaison for my class. We’ve seen a little bit in our class – the inappropriate terms being used for medical conditions, whether it’s like racist, sexist, or ableist. I know OHSU has a mission as a program to remove from their medical education. 

Mahtab: Yeah, like red man syndrome. I remember that got corrected system wide. 

José Manuel: And that was great. And I like that. But we’ve had some other times where something that wasn’t quite as glaringly obvious as that one and people emailing, “I’m not sure where to go.” The idea that Rohi and I brainstormed and are working on is a sort of system – like a Qualtrics survey where you can go and report something you see or hear. Then there is a downstream system of people at the DEI office, who will take that in and decide on a system for reaching out to those professors and school wide [to correct]. With the help of OHSU, this is an ongoing project that we’ve been working on and we’re just getting to the point of refining the process a little bit more.  

I would say within the next year, we want to release that and it’s going to be a really important step to even going further and reducing types of harmful language that we may accidentally use in medical education. And so that’s one project that I’m really excited about through DEI. Do you want to share a project you’ve been working on? 

Mahtab: You’re also linked to this. For any listeners, both Jose and I are a part of the asylum clinic on campus. What we do is help people who are applying for asylum get connected with a forensic evaluator to corroborate the claims that the person filing for asylum is making. 

The current stuff I’m working on is really exciting. We’re working on setting up an in-person clinic. With COVID, we’ve had to do a lot of them virtually, but I think we’ve been getting a lot of support from OHSU as an institution. We recently won what is called the Flame Award to recognize us for the work that we’ve done so far. And I think we’re going to continue to expand the in-person stuff.  

I’m also working on a research paper for the asylum clinic. There are some really interesting opportunities that I hadn’t thought of with telehealth. Once you get into the literature, there were papers talking about this, which is just something super cool that I read about. It could be implemented on a smaller scale, using telehealth with the new policies at the border in Mexico, where you know, they make it very, very difficult for you to file a claim and show up for your hearing and all those sorts of things. And you have to wait in Mexico. There is one really cool paper I read that was talking about implementing telehealth evaluations so that people who are waiting can get a telehealth evaluation in Mexico, which would be able to help them at the border. You don’t have to come to the U.S. You can just get it done there. Someone from over here [the U.S.] will corroborate and then you know, you can get you can get your evaluation that way. 

José Manuel: That sounds amazing. I’m sure you already know about this, Mahtab. Pugin and I worked on an immigration health elective and kind of associated with PHR, and recently, she let me know that a bill was passed SB 1543 which gives which is making grants to organizations to help fund asylum seekers get basically free legal representation. And if I believe that this is the first state [Oregon] that’s going to be able to say we are. 

Mahtab: We are. That’s correct. 

José Manuel: And look, we are already building an asylum clinic not really expecting this to happen, so we’re like in a really good place to use this momentum and organize with the community to amplify what we’ve been doing now that the system has kind of moved a little bit and is giving us some more resources to do it. I wanted to mention this because even within our system, this is like a win. This is going to lead to better outcomes and this is going to lead to not moral injury, but rather moral fulfillment. And just feeling good that we’re doing this thing even within the constraints of our system. 

The whole team is super excited to use the momentum and the resources to get our clinic running in-person and help as many people as possible. It maybe become a model nationwide. And I really hope that we can get the support for OHSU, so we can set up that clinic. 

These kinds of ideas and the excitement that we show is a good driver and motivator every day that I’m going to get through it, even if it’s just making a difference within a single patient encounter at this moment.