Skip to main content

Keith shapes success for minorities in health fields

Larry Keith, far right, joins with UNC medical students who were members of the Student National Medical Association who participated in the National Association for Minority Medical Educator’s Recruitment Fair held September 2004 in Atlanta. Program coordinator Georgia Njagu is seated in front.
Larry Keith, far right, joins with UNC medical students who were members of the Student National Medical Association who participated in the National Association for Minority Medical Educator’s Recruitment Fair held September 2004 in Atlanta. Program coordinator Georgia Njagu is seated in front.

Larry Keith always viewed his work at Carolina, not as a job, but a mission.

The five titles he held in the School of Medicine — associate director of the Office of Education Development, assistant dean for admissions, director of special programs, director of recruitment and clinical assistant professor in the Department of Allied Health Sciences- — are more words than could fit on a business card.

People who don’t know Keith might reasonably wonder how one person could find all the hours it would take to attend to all these duties in a single day. But for Keith, the work dovetails, overlaps, weaves and fits his one overriding goal: to increase the number of underrepresented and disadvantaged minorities in the health-care profession.

Keith’s determination in fulfilling that mission helped him to win a C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award last spring, said colleague and friend Pasche Jeffries.

For every student who comes through this office, he makes sure he does anything and everything he can to make them succeed, Jeffries said. He stays late at night. He comes in on Saturdays to tutor students who need help on a particular subject.

“I don’t think you can really describe in words Larry’s absolute dedication and passion to seeing students through school,” Jeffries said. “I don’t even think driven is a strong enough word for it. He just lives and breathes it. He is a father figure to all of these students. He just continuously encourages them.”

And it is that fierce determination, Jeffries said, that Keith has summoned to get through a bout with cancer that forced him to go on medical leave last January. His mission now is to get well and come back.

As a way of paying tribute to his long years of service, Keith’s colleagues, past and present, nominated him for the Massey.

Meanwhile, Keith’s students, past and present, found another way to pay tribute to him. This fall, a deserving medical student received a scholarship for one year of in-state tuition through the Larry D. Keith Loyalty Fund Scholarship. The scholarship is being endowed through private donations from friends, former and current students, faculty and staff, matched by funds from the Medical Alumni Loyalty Fund. The scholarship is now fully funded and will be awarded to a different student each year.

Jeffries, as the associate director of special programs under Keith, gets to visit with Keith several times a month, sometimes when he comes to campus for treatment.

Everyone has been heartened by the progress he has made over the past year, she said. He has gained weight and strength — and has the expectation of returning to work sometimes next year, she said.

“I can’t ever fill his shoes,” Jeffries said. “I’m just doing my best to follow his mission until he comes back. And we have every belief and prayer and hope that he will be back.”

A father figure of his own

That Keith has become a father figure to students, he said, has something to do with having a good role model growing up in Raleigh: his mother.

She raised Keith, along with his brother and two sisters, on her own, Keith said. Working hard in school was not an option she gave her children, but an imperative, and she spent as much time as she could at school to keep her eye on them.

As Keith described her, “My mother served as my father and my mother -— and she was very good at it.”

For Keith, his diligence — and hers – paid off. He earned his bachelor of science in biology from N.C. A&T State University in 1975. He went on to earn two master of science degrees — the first in biology from Virginia State University in 1976, the second in anatomy from Carolina in 1985.

Since 1992, Keith has directed the Medical Education Development Program that offers coursework and support services to prepare minority and disadvantaged students for medical and dental school. The program works so well that 88 percent of participating students who apply to medical school are accepted.

Among them was Adebowale Odulana, a graduate of the University’s medical school now in his in his first year of residency at Virginia Commonwealth University Health Systems. Odulana graduated from Keith’s program in 1999.

“I must say that I speak from personal experience and also that I speak for a multitude of students who feel the exact same way,” Odulana said of Keith’s influence. “He has been a father figure to us all and encourages us to challenge ourselves. When we fall he is there to pick us up, and when we succeed he is there to congratulate us.”

In 1998, Keith became director of the Research Apprenticeship Program, linking minority or disadvantaged high school students with faculty mentors who help them gain competence in laboratory research and explore biomedical careers. Under his leadership, more students participated in and successfully completed the Research Apprenticeship Program than in the preceding 19 years.

Keith has also been an active member and held offices in the National Association of Minority Medical Educators and in the Minority Affairs Section of the Association of American Medical Colleges. He has been called upon frequently to review grant applications for the Health Careers Opportunity Program and the Centers of Excellence Program of the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration.

Carol P. Tresolini, the University’s associate provost for academic initiatives, said the programs he has developed and his national leadership are only a part of Keith’s contributions.

Keith has been equally vital, she said, in establishing and maintaining a community within the medical school that supports, nurtures and challenges students. “Mr. Keith’s office serves as a home away from home for minority and other medical students, and he is always willing to provide advice, advocate and locate needed services.”

A lasting influence

Beyond these programs, Keith has partnered with organizations in and out of the University to create a pipeline of minority and disadvantaged student recruitment, preparation and retention. With collaborators from Carolina’s schools of medicine and dentistry, the North Carolina Health Careers Access Program, the campus chapter of the Student National Medical Association, undergraduate campuses at Carolina and five historically minority universities in the UNC system, all nine regional Area Health Education Centers, and local public school systems, he created and directs the UNC Health Careers Opportunity Program, a federally funded initiative that now serves as a national model.

He also proposed and received federal funding for a Center of Excellence for Minority Health in the School of Medicine.

William L. Roper, dean of the School of Medicine, said in his nominating letter that Keith’s “creative and unceasing efforts” have produced wonderful results.

“We now rank ninth among all medical schools in the graduation of African-American students and fifth among all schools in the graduation of Native American students. He created and maintains a community within the medical school that gives previously disadvantaged students an equal chance to succeed as health professionals, and his influence will be felt for decades.”

Beyond the numbers, Keith’s influence on each student may be his greatest measure of success.

On coming back

Cancer may have interrupted him, and the treatment he has undergone over the past year has left him feeling sick and weak. What remains as strong as ever, he said, is his determination to return to the work he loves. Keith said he would be tested this month to determine how effective his treatments have been. If things go as he hopes, he may be able to return to work by next spring.

“This is a process that I’m going through, but I’m looking to come back,” Keith said.

As for winning the Massey and having a scholarship fund created in his name, Keith wants people to know how much both honors have meant to him.

“I was just doing my job, but the outpouring of support I’ve gotten since I’ve been sick has made me feel so wonderful,” Keith said.
“It made me feel people noticed what I was doing.”

Originally published by University Gazette: Nov. 15, 2006

Comments are closed.