Throughout his career, Dr. James Phillips was fueled by seeing students succeed.
The Sharon native spent a quarter century as the senior associate dean for community outreach at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, with the goal of increasing diversity in the medical field. He officially retired on Sept. 30 of last year.
Phillips attended the former Wengler School before spending his next three years at the Elliot School in West Middlesex. Back then, he said, all eight grades attended class in the same room.
By the time Phillips reached high school, he had already completed more schooling than either one of his parents. He was a star tight end on the Farrell High School football team, and credits then-Steelers head coach Anthony Paulekas for jumpstarting his higher education.
“Paulekas told me, ‘Phillips, you keep up those grades and I’ll get you into college,” he recalled. “I had great trust and great faith in him.”
Phillips later attended Washington and Jefferson College – Paulekas’ alma mater – on an academic and athletic scholarship.
He said he hadn’t even submitted an application to Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University Medical School when he scored an interview with the university dean.
“I had just finished a tour (of the school) when I was told that the dean had a cancelation and asked if I would like to talk to him,” Phillips said. “He told me if my grades were what I said they were, he would have a spot for me in the next medical school class.”
Phillips then went on to become the first African-American intern at University Hospitals of Cleveland. He completed his residency at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital, and joined the Navy, serving as a pediatrician at the naval hospital at Camp Pendleton.
Only one black student had matriculated through Baylor College of Medicine when Phillips was recruited by the school’s former president Dr. Bill Butler in 1993.
Not only was Phillips able to increase the number of underrepresented students in the college, he was also able to increase the applicant pool from about 200 to more than 1,000.
“People are comfortable seeing a doctor who understands their background,” Phillips said. “(Baylor) recognized the need for these positions, especially positions of color, to serve the people who were not getting first rate care.”
Phillips achieved this by teaching students how to become better applicants.
He created a Baylor’s Saturday Morning Science Program, which he ran for 13 years. The program invited roughly 100 students in grades 7-12 to the medical school two Saturdays each month. The students were lectured by faculty and were given assignments to complete in small groups. At the end, about 10 students were selected to work at the research center.
Phillips also facilitated advice interviews in which students interest in attending medical school could schedule an appointment to meet with him to ask questions. Phillips hosted countless cookouts at his home, as well, which were attended by hundreds of current and former students, faculty and community members.
Once a student was accepted into the medical school, Phillips started a “revisit weekend” where the applicants were invited back to campus on the university’s dime for a final recruitment pitch to officially enroll in the school.
“I got to know the medical students real well,” Phillips said. “They almost become a part of the family.”
Phillips beamed as he talked about dinner with a number of his former students shortly after his retirement. As the evening wrapped up, the students announced they had started a scholarship fund in his honor. The group raised more than $70,000 in a single night.
“It’s just unbelievable,” Phillips said.
Phillips’ advice to aspiring medical students is all about the numbers.
“The most important thing to get in (to medical school) is your GPA and score on the MCAT exam,” he said. “You have to prioritize your time. You can’t just be going to movies and watching TV.”
And it also doesn’t hurt to have a good mentor.
“That plays an awful lot,” Phillips said. “You have to know what to do, who to contact, and when to do it. Plus you have to get out of the gate and be the first person to apply.”
NOTE: This story has been edited to add information that Phillips graduated from and played football at Farrell High School.