Lighting the Path
UF hosts unique program to excite minority students about health care careers
It started with a White Coat Ceremony in May and ended with a Pinning Ceremony in June, and the six weeks in between offered life-altering experiences and unprecedented access to educational resources at the University of Florida for 80 underrepresented and minority undergraduate college students from California to Vermont, Minnesota to Texas and New York to Puerto Rico.
While everyone is created equal, a variety of factors can prevent equal access and exposure to academic resources for young adults from communities and families of social, economic and educational disadvantage — including those interested in health professions education.
Enter the University of Florida Summer Health Professions Education Program, or UF SHPEP, which made its debut this summer. Funded by a $415,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, or RWJF, plus in-kind donations from the six health colleges, the free residential program focused on improving access to health professions, information, and resources for freshmen and sophomores from 54 colleges and universities across the country, including eight students from UF.
“For the first time, many of these students interacted with, and learned from, health care professionals who look like them and are doing the jobs they want to do,” said Michelle Jacobs, M.D., assistant dean for diversity and health equity in the UF College of Medicine. “There are a lot of underrepresented students out there who have not seen someone who looks like them in their field of interest.”
The unique opportunity was not lost on the appreciative students.
“This program was something special for every one of us,” Hector Rivera Orozco, a pre-med student from the University of Puerto Rico, said. “We were able to shadow physicians and build networks with admissions representatives. Although we are minorities, I know that all of my friends in this program are going to be the next generation of health care professionals because this program gave us the necessary tools to accomplish our goals.”
An in-depth, wide-ranging curriculum
Formerly known as the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program, SHPEP expanded in 2016 to include a broader array of health professions and now has 13 program sites nationwide as part of the RWJF’s mission to build a national culture of health.
Four main career pathways formed the interdisciplinary, interprofessional curriculum at UF’s SHPEP site: dentistry, medicine, pharmacy, and public health and health professions. There also were closer-look segments in nursing, physician assistant studies and veterinary medicine.
The big-picture emphasis was interprofessional education and an understanding of how each profession fits into the health care field globally, said Amy Blue, Ph.D., associate dean for educational affairs at the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions, and associate vice president for interprofessional education at UF Health.
Patty Probert, Ph.D., assistant dean for the Office of Student Advocacy & Inclusion in the UF College of Dentistry, was the principal investigator on the RWJF grant. She led a diverse group of around 20 faculty and staff members representing all six UF Health colleges that formed in October 2016 after UF received the RWJF grant. Like the SHPEP students, the team gelled throughout the program.
“Working with faculty and staff from all of the UF Health academic colleges was life-changing,” Probert reflected. “We are all in our own silos, but this collaboration made the University of Florida a better institution, and as a byproduct will positively influence our interdisciplinary and interprofessional relations.”
The team developed the admissions process, the curriculum components, programming, operational details and much more. With a total operating budget of $905,000, the UF SHPEP program covered travel, transportation, food and on-campus room and board for all participants, who were selected by the faculty and staff admissions subcommittee through an application process in spring 2017.
The 80 students, known as scholars, got intense exposure to academic health, but SHPEP offered much more. They learned about health care opportunities in the Air Force, Army and Navy; they attended a college stress and coping workshop; and they learned about community outreach with HealthStreet, a College of Medicine, College of Public Health and Health Professions and UF Clinical and Translational Science Institute community-engagement program.
SHPEP even provided modules in career and study skill development, leadership and communication skills, health policy education, financial literacy and civil rights. Mock admissions interviews and essays, hands-on clinical experiences, and didactic and clinical interaction with faculty from the six health colleges empowered students to believe they can accomplish goals they didn’t know were possible.
The curriculum included participation in dentistry’s Impressions Program, a chance to shadow physicians in an operating room, a toxicology and poison control workshop, and listening to heartbeats on simulation mannequins in the Nursing Resource Center. Scholars also practiced surgical techniques at the veterinary college and learned the many roles of a pharmacist, prescription-writing specifics, the science behind drugs and the rigor of being a physician assistant.
Mass casualty drill: Stop the Bleed
A smoking car, volunteers coated in fake blood and moaning from injuries, and Gainesville and Alachua County public health and emergency medical services crews all combined one muggy day in June for perhaps the most riveting training exercise for the SHPEP scholars.
Here was the fictitious scenario: Two campus organizations were holding a Battle of the Bands event for charity. A disgruntled student planted bombs at one site and detonated a bomb-laden car at the second site. Law enforcement had received a report of a social media post that said ‘‘something big is going to happen and all of you will remember my name this time.’’
As smoke from the mock car bomb wafted across the field, the SHPEP scholars ran to help the sprawled victims. Guided by UF and local public safety agencies, the scholars learned how to triage, treat and transport dozens of patients.
“This scenario was chosen after a team of medical providers came together to create an innovative way to expose the students to a mass casualty disaster relevant to today’s times,” said Takeshia Pierre, M.P.H., UF SHPEP program coordinator.
“This experience provided real-world, immediate skills that the participants could take back to their communities and, in the event of an emergency, they can make a difference for their family, friends and community,” added Probert. UF is the first SHPEP program to incorporate a mass casualty exercise into the curriculum.
The drill emphasized objectives including pressure on wounds, tourniquets and immobilization, all of which are related to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Stop the Bleed campaign. Launched in October 2015, Stop the Bleed is a national awareness campaign intended to encourage bystanders to become trained, equipped and empowered to help in a bleeding emergency before professional help arrives.
“This drill was really intense, but I liked the tourniquet exercise,” said Maria Vargas-Rivera from the University of Puerto Rico. “Everyone should know how to use a tourniquet. (A disaster like this) is something that could happen anywhere, and knowing the basic tourniquet maneuver is good. Now I would know what to do in a real-life experience.”
Pay it forward: the role of a mentor
Access to UF faculty and staff was one of the many benefits of SHPEP, but the program went a step further: It gave scholars a chance to spend time with minority UF students with similar backgrounds, who were exploring a health profession they aspire to join.
The scholars were not alone in recognizing the value of the mentoring.
“This program and the experiences are so beneficial,” said Chantel Nelson, a UF veterinary medicine student. “I wish I would have had a program like this to help guide me during undergrad.”
Now in her third year of veterinary school, Nelson relished the opportunity to spend a summer Sunday morning working with the next generation of health care professionals during the SHPEP veterinary medicine future surgeon experience.
Linda Lavadia, a second-year UF dental student, knows first-hand the value of programs like SHPEP. As a biomedical sciences major at the University of Central Florida, she attended the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program in Ohio, which solidified her passion for dentistry.
“It’s hard to get hands-on experience as an undergrad unless you’re in some type of program,” said Lavadia. “It was one of the best experiences of my life. Once I got back to my undergraduate studies, I had tunnel vision and was ready to do whatever it took to get in to dental school.”
Lavadia’s experience came full circle when she got the opportunity to serve as a mentor.
“It’s exhausting, and there’s a lot coming at you because you keep the same schedule as a dental or medical student during the program,” Lavadia added, “but it’s really rewarding. You learn a lot, and it prepares you to succeed in your undergraduate studies to get into a health professions school.”
SHPEP ‘changed my life’
At the program’s end, SHPEP left some scholars toggling between aspirations of being a veterinarian or a physician assistant, changed some minds from pharmacy to nursing, and opened other eyes to health care professions they never knew existed. Most importantly, the program provided all of the students a voice for themselves and the confidence to advocate for their needs, and a multitude of tools and resources for successful application to and matriculation into health professions education.
“This program literally changed my life,’’ said University of Texas student Grace Akinyemi. “I came in interested in pharmacy, and I’m still 125 percent sure I want to pursue pharmacy. I’ve learned how much more there is to pharmacy. I never knew the extent of pharmacists’ role in the hospital. I found a new passion for pediatric pharmacy and I’ve made lifelong friends in this program.”
Professional, intrigued and engaged — all words used to describe UF’s first SHPEP cohort. Six weeks set up the potential for a lifetime of success. Now, the cycle recommences. Probert and the faculty and staff committee will set their sights on applying for the grant for summer 2018.
“Aside from making an immediate difference in the lives of these students, from a global perspective, this program backs a very important movement in health care disparities,” said Frank Catalanotto, D.M.D., a professor in the UF department of community dentistry and behavioral science. “We need more underrepresented health care professionals.”
Meet the students
Since her childhood, Sainab Awokoya has heard troubling stories about health care in her parent’s home country of Nigeria. “You can be waiting in a hospital from sunup to sundown just to see a doctor,” she said. “They also don’t have primary care and clinics to help prevent health problems in the long run.” Those harsh realities are what drew her to pursue a career in medicine. Awokoya attends Barnard College in New York City, where she studies psychology. Since Barnard does not offer public health as a major, she jumped at the chance to follow the SHPEP public health pathway. “I feel like I’ve gotten a strong support system here,” she said. “And hearing everyone’s stories, I feel like there is still hope for me to pursue my dream in medicine.” — Abigail Miller
Siani Anessia Antoine
Second-year University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill student Siani Anessia Antoine said her love for animals stems from her dog. “She has taught me just how important animals are in our world and how much care they deserve,” she said. The biology and history double major said she has always been interested in health care and the opportunity to come to Gainesville and learn more about the high-ranking UF College of Veterinary Medicine drew her to SHPEP. “My favorite part of the program would have to be meeting all of the amazing students who are just as goal-focused as me,” she said. “It gave me so much energy to be surrounded by people like me.” — Abigail Miller
In the small town of Dennison, Iowa, minority pharmacists are few and far between. This lack of representation in his hometown inspired Gustavo Flores to pursue a career as a pharmacist. The Iowa State University sophomore said the SHPEP program helped expose him to different opportunities in the pharmacy field. “I had no idea there was an OR pharmacist or what a family pharmacist even was,” he said. The best part about the program, he said, was being able to meet people from different universities and different experiences who all have the same goals. “We all want to make the health care field more diverse, and that’s really incredible.” — Abigail Miller
Kalleb Miller discovered how much he enjoyed serving others while traveling to do mission work with his church youth group when he was in high school. He knew then that he also wanted a career
in health care but was undecided about what field to choose. Miller, 20, an incoming sophomore at Valparaiso University in Indiana majoring in chemistry and minoring in biology, chose dentistry after
his physician mentioned that she thought he would be good at it. He solidified his decision to pursue the field when he practiced making dental impressions during SHPEP. “The first day that we actually did it I thought, ‘Oh, wow, I can actually do this,’” he said. “It was just such a great feeling to know
that I could actually do something with my hands that was going to have an effect, hopefully,
on the future.” — Isaac Heller
When Bankole Olowofela was a youngster, his mother was taken to a hospital by ambulance. That experience, along with a desire to improve conditions in Nigeria, where his parents are from, helped motivate him to seek a career as a physician. “I don’t think it’s fair that people are not given the opportunity to live, not a lavish lifestyle, but they don’t have the opportunity to live past a certain age,” he said. “I definitely want to go back to help fix that in some way.” Olowofela, 19, an incoming junior majoring in biology at the University of Florida, said his desires were validated during the SHPEP program when he did a mock interview with a UF emergency department physician who had similar reasons for going into medicine. “Having him reaffirm I’m not alone in this and there are people who go through things like this was really helpful,” he said. — Isaac Heller
While shadowing professionals at SHPEP, Jailene Ramirez saw how working in the health field may look for her one day. “I think I just learned how important it was to work as a team,” she said. “I saw people talking to each other, always depending on each other.” Ramirez, 19, an incoming junior majoring in biology at Florida International University, said talking to UF medical students was an important part of the program. “I’m the first person in my family to go to college and no one in my family has done anything medical, so it was cool to get advice from people who are going through it right now,” she said. Ramirez also made plenty of new friends. “I now have a friend who lives in Queens, New York and another in West Palm Beach,” she said. “I know these are valuable friendships that we made throughout these six weeks.” — Isaac Heller
Koree Walton has decided to pursue a career in nursing, and talking with a nurse practitioner who she was shadowing during SHPEP helped seal the deal. “I got her contact information and that talk just opened my eyes so much to all the things that nurses could do,” she said. A 20-year-old incoming junior at Bethune-Cookman University who is planning to change her major to prenursing, Walton said she enjoyed seeing a diverse group of professionals during SHPEP. “Being a minority, it was really nice to see different minority doctors, nurses and dentists,” she said. “That is not something that you can see everywhere because it’s not so prevalent at other places and in other programs so that was very nice because it gives you hope as a minority person.” — Isaac Heller