Dr Kelli speaks with students at Academe of the Oaks.
Dr Kelli speaks with students at Academe of the Oaks.

By Clare S. Richie

The path from high school to becoming a doctor just became clearer and more attainable thanks to the Young Physicians Initiative (YPI). This premedical program, in partnership with a cardiology fellow and his medical students from Emory University School of Medicine, provides guidance and hands-on experience to high school students interested in a career in medicine.

This school year marks the official launch of YPI at Academe of the Oaks in Decatur, where it was piloted last spring, and at Clarkston High School. For YPI founder, Dr. Heval Mohamed Kelli, it’s a way to pay forward the help he received to realize his dream of becoming a doctor.

“Hard work is important but you also need exposure, mentorship, and guidance,” Kelli said.

Bringing the program to Clarkston High School was personal. “I want serve students like me – refugees, minorities, people without education – to work with kids who had no exposure to the path to become a doctor,’’ Dr. Kelli shared.

“Dr. Kelli wants all students to feel that they could go to medical school – that they could accomplish what he accomplished,” Academe teacher Tara Wyman said.

Kelli and his family fled persecution in Syria nearly two decades ago. They lived temporarily in Germany and then came to the U.S. as refugees in 2001: Kelli’s senior year at Clarkston High School. Despite this unexpected journey, he held on to a childhood dream planted at age 14 as he watched his friend die of Leukemia.

“I saw first-hand how doctors not only heal but are community leaders.” Kelli reflected. “For me, the seed was planted but it needed to be nurtured.”

Dr. Kelli
Dr. Kelli

Through a classmate of his brother (who was on scholarship at Pace Academy), Kelli met Dr. Omar Lattouf, a cardiothoracic surgeon and professor at Emory School of Medicine. Lattouf mentored Kelli, who graduated from Georgia State with honors, while working as a dishwasher to support his family. Kelli went on to graduate from the Morehouse School of Medicine in 2012 and today is a Katz Fellow in Preventive Cardiology, a four-year research program in anticipation of a career in academic cardiovascular prevention.

“Dr. Lattouf exposed me to different fields. Made me believe that I have what it takes. I can replicate that same motivation and self-esteem for high schools students,” Kelli said.

He created YPI to do just that. Students meet monthly after school for 45 minutes for 8-10 months. The interactive sessions cover medical school preparation, the life of a doctor, careers in medicine and hands-on experiences. Students shadow physicians and interact with patients who lack insurance at the Clarkston Community Health Center, located one block from where Kelli’s family first lived.

The pilot last spring at Academe, a small Decatur private high school that combines rigorous college prep with the arts and community service, was a success. Just four sessions made a big impact on the student participants. About half had no previous exposure to any medial experience or mentorship. But nearly two-thirds now believe that will become doctors and nearly all would like a mentor for their journey.

And Kelli urges others to follow his lead of giving back. “There could be a Young Engineer Initiative, Young Business Initiative, and others to mentor students on various paths. Professional adults with degrees underestimate the impact they can have on their community. High school students are hungry for mentorship. Forty-five minutes per month is a manageable time commitment with a huge payoff,” Kelli said.

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.