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Detroit — Ever since her grandmother died of breast cancer when she was a child, Jasmine Coles knew she wanted to be a doctor.

“I want to save lives,” the Sterling Heights 19-year-old said.

Coles’ parents encouraged her to follow her dreams. But they also suggested she may want to consider a career with fewer years of training, such as a nurse or a physician’s assistant, to save on student loan costs since her mother took years to pay off her own college loans.

Then Coles won a coveted spot in Wayne Med-Direct — a unique Wayne State University program that pays for and guarantees admission to the university’s undergraduate honors college and four years of medical school to 10 exceptional students every year. The program attempts to reach underrepresented minorities and students from low-socioeconomic families with an interest in studying health disparities — and expects the students to not only become doctors but also leaders in the medical field.

The two-year-old program was part of the university’s general fund budget until Thursday, when American Axle & Manufacturing co-founder and philanthropist Mort Harris gifted the program $10 million so it can exist in perpetuity.

“You’re in a great institution under a wonderful leader,” said Harris, 97, as he sat surrounded by the inaugural Med-Direct class. “I’m glad we are able to do what we’re able to do ... and produce medical leaders to help improve the health care of so many people.”

Harris is one of Wayne State’s top five donors who has made a $17.5 million cumulative contribution to the university for its fitness center, social work and literacy programs. He also has been a benefactor to the Henry Ford Health System, the Michigan Science Center and other institutions because of his interest in health and science and as a way to honor loved ones who have died from ailments ranging from heart failure, pancreatic cancer and stroke.

He could have donated to other, more high-profile causes at Wayne State, but chose Wayne Med-Direct.

“High profile is not meaningful to me,” said Harris, a Bloomfield Hills resident who studied at Wayne State. “I know I’m very fortunate. You don’t see a group of people like I just met today who have a great grade point average like they do. I am very happy to meet them. I’m honored.”

Harris said he also heard about the program from Wayne State President M. Roy Wilson, who created it to make sure that underrepresented minorities and people from low-socioeconomic backgrounds have an opportunity to explore the entire array of what medicine has to offer.

“Often time (those students) get shunted into certain fields of medicine, certain types of practices,” said Wilson, adding that all fields of medicine are important. “I want them to get the same message that I got in med school, the expectation that I was going to be a leader. We have to think in terms of the next generation of leaders in medicine.”

And too often, Wilson said, students trying to get into medical school are competing against one another, differentiating themselves by taking the hardest science classes.

“Those are not the tricks best for medicine,” said Wilson. “It’s being well-rounded, able to work together as a team, being based in the humanities as well as the sciences and to be admitted into medical school from the very beginning allows that to happen.”

Wayne Med-Direct has gotten about 300 applications since it began, and almost all selected had a GPA at or near 4.0.

As undergrads, the students live on campus and are involved in field experiences and cutting-edge research, and also attend enrichment courses, academic conferences and seminars. During medical school, they will go to China between their third and fourth year to expose them to health care outside the U.S. and hopefully give them a transformative experience, Wilson said.

“I really think if you challenge these kids and give them high expectations, they will rise to those expectations,” Wilson said. “Too often, underrepresented minorities and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds are not programmed to reach as high as they can. So this, from the very beginning, we expect them to do something beyond going to medical school and becoming a medical doctor.”

By the time a student has completed the program, their educational experience is valued near $300,000.

Students added they were glad others will get the same chance in the future.

“I feel really grateful as someone who would have had difficulty paying for undergrad and medical school,” said sophomore Rosetta Irons of Bowie, Maryland. “Now students after me who are in a similar position will have an opportunity.”

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com

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