The Class of 2020’s Ashton Branch recalls entering the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit to meet her newborn sister, who had been delivered experiencing meconium aspiration. That visit as a 13-year-old, with its vivid memory of handwashing with a pungent soap, sparked her interest in medicine.

“Although my sister was really sick at the time, I thought the NICU was amazing,” Branch says. “The doctors and the nurses were cool, and it was neat how they were able to comfort parents who had just given birth to a sick baby. That was my first exposure to medicine.”

Branch’s curiosity about medicine was fueled by participating in Project ACEe as a Richmond Community High School student. Project ACEe, offered through the VCU School of Medicine, provides local high school students with the chance to learn about different aspects of medicine through workshops and mentorship opportunities on the MCV Campus. Students apply through the VCU Division for Health Sciences Diversity.

Ashton Branch

The Class of 2020’s Ashton Branch

Donna Jackson, Ed.D., assistant dean and director of the Office of Student Outreach at the VCU School of Medicine, heads the program, which opens the possibility of a medical career to students who are underrepresented in medicine and may not have the resources to do so on their own.

“The program is important because a lot of the time students have the dreams but not the access,” she says. “ACEe provides students with information on how to navigate college and medical school. We want to help them see their full potential. Yes, they may face challenges along the way, but that doesn’t have to stop them from achieving their goals.”

Project ACEe confirmed for Branch that medicine was her career path. Witnessing how Jackson connected with and supported her students made quite an impact on her.

“She cared about and advocated for all of the students,” Branch says. “She always made herself available and encouraged us to reach out if we had any questions.”

Interacting with other medical students, especially those of color, also impressed her.

“It’s nice to see somebody who looks like you and is successful, and to know you have just as much opportunity as anyone else,” she says. “Project ACEe helped me stay motivated to take academics seriously.”

During college at the University of Virginia, however, Branch struggled in some of her classes and switched gears. She exited the pre-med track and ultimately graduated with a Spanish degree.

“I can be honest and say that I was not as successful academically in undergrad as I wanted to be,” she says. “That was a huge obstacle for me.”

At the time, she admits it felt like a failure, but now she does not regret her decision to change majors.

“It was good for me to re-evaluate and think, ‘Hey, is this something you really want to do?’” she says. “I really took time to reflect and gain confidence in myself to know that I can perform as well as anyone else even if I came from an inner-city public school.”

After taking time off after college to work as a medical scribe, Branch completed a post-baccalaureate certificate at VCU. The rigorous program fulfilled her pre-medicine requisites and she entered the VCU School of Medicine, where she was awarded a Diversity Merit Scholarship. Along the way, she kept in touch with Jackson, who says Branch realized she needed to make some changes if medicine was what she wanted to do.

“Her motivation to continue no matter what is part of her success,” Jackson says. “Her work ethic has paved the way for what she’s accomplished. She showed the resiliency we like to see in medical students.”

Now Branch eagerly awaits Match Day and graduation, when she will become the second Project ACEe student to graduate from the VCU School of Medicine.

“I feel like Dr. Jackson has watched me emerge from my egg as a Project ACEe student and now I’m about to leave the coop and graduate from medical school,” she says. “That’s awesome.”

Main image shows members of Project ACEe’s 2019 cohort in the Center for Human Simulation and Patient Safety.