A head start on science, medical careers
Specialty education programs go where public classrooms can't
By Helyn Trickey
Special to CNN
(CNN) -- Sandra Alcazar stitches pigs' feet in a small, oblong classroom on Stanford University's campus in Palo Alto, California.
She sticks her tongue out in concentration as she works the tiny needle through the tough skin. Her needle slips. In a flash, the Vertical Mattress stitch, a suturing technique commonly used for deep wounds, comes undone.
"It is good my pig is already dead because I would have killed it," she says.
Seven heads turn and laugh with her. All the students must master a series of simple stitches before heading off to the pathology lab.
Alcazar, 16, is one of 24 northern and central California high school students selected annually by the Stanford Medical Youth Science Program to complete a five-week, on-campus intensive program meant to introduce them to science, college and careers in health care.
The hope is that these low-income, minority students envision themselves one day dressed in scrubs or peering through a microscope.
But the odds are not in their favor.
High school graduation is the first hurdle for most of them. For every 100 students in California who enter the ninth grade, only 70 make it to graduation, according to a report released this year by Education Trust-West, an Oakland, California-based nonprofit group whose mission is to accelerate minority and low-income student achievement.
According to the study, less than a quarter of the state's high school graduates complete the curriculum that makes them eligible to attend a California State or University of California college. The challenging college prep curriculum is intended to prepare students for a future college career.
The statistics are even bleaker for minority students. Only 12 percent of Latino students and 14 percent of African-American students graduate with the college prep course sequence completed, the study says.
"It's a choice issue," says Russlyn Ali, director of the Education Trust-West. "At the end of the day we have to make a high school diploma more than an empty promise," she says.
Ali says opportunities like the Stanford Medical Youth Science Program are essential in educating and mentoring low-income and minority students and broadening their awareness of industries where jobs are plentiful, like the health care professions.
SMYSP Executive Director Judith Ned agrees.
Her Stanford campus office walls are plastered with calendars highlighting different SMYSP events in yellow marker. She holds a walkie-talkie in her left hand and answers e-mails with her right.
"Our kids have so much going on," she says. "Many of [the SMYSP students] are working to help support their families," she says. "You have students who are from impoverished families or they've lost a parent or they've come from a foster family. Their resiliency is astounding."
SMYSP's numbers are astounding, too.
More than 357 students have graduated from the summer program since its inception in 1987, and 95 percent of them have been admitted to colleges or universities in the United States. Among those students who've graduated from college, 11 percent are attending or have completed medical school, and 21 percent are working professionals in health-related careers.
In SMYSP's 17-year history only a couple of students have dropped out of the Summer Program, and 14 percent of the program's students did not ultimately pursue higher education or healthcare-related careers.
Dr. Marilyn Winkleby, co-founder of SMYSP and an associate professor of medicine at Stanford University, says the program works because it is tailored to each student's academic needs and no student's potential is underestimated.
"These students come from under-resourced schools where there are few or no advanced placement classes, or maybe there are advanced placement classes but students haven't been admitted because English is not their first language," she says.
"They have much less exposure to broader environments than higher income students," she explains. "Many times they have never visited a college campus and sometimes they don't know the difference between a community college and a Stanford."
What SMYSP students have on their side is an unflagging interest in science and medicine, inquisitive personalities and real strength of character in the face of great odds, Winkleby says.
'A safe haven'
Dr. Tomas Magana knows a little something about overcoming the odds. During medical school he looked around and saw he was the only Latino in his class.
That cultural isolation helped fuel his desire to co-found FACES for the Future, a nonprofit organization dedicated to addressing health disparities in minority communities by preparing their students for careers in health care.
"We want to get them jazzed about all health careers, all of them, and then empower them to think about college, to consider it and then to train them to be advocates and voices for their communities," he says.
The program, which is in its third year of operation, selects students from the San Francisco Bay Area to join a three-year academic enhancement program. Once enrolled, the students have mentoring and academic coaching, clinical in-hospital rotations, and personal counseling and leadership development workshops.
Taking a break are SMYSP students, from left, William Phenix, Chima Nwankwo, Bertha Mora, Dr. Mychele Shegog, Anthony Alvarado and Lilla Pittman.
Last year 93 percent of FACES students graduated from high school and 92 percent of them enrolled in college. More than 30 percent began college in the competitive University of California system.
In its inaugural year, the FACES class of 2003 graduated 26 of the original 27 students. The FACES class of 2004 lost nine of its students, but the program rebounded the next year when 23 out of 25 students graduated.
"Students left the program for a variety of reasons," says Catherine West, program director for FACES. "Some moved away; some chose to participate in sports in the afternoon; but for most, it was due to severe psychosocial reasons," she says.
"The short-term goal is to get them out of high school," she explains. "That is an uphill battle. It's hard to inspire a youth to think of college when they aren't even sure they will be alive tomorrow ... the program creates a safe haven for them, so they can get away from the hell and concentrate on themselves."
Luz Gomez, 18, is proof the program works.
Gomez, who graduated from FACES this year, will be a freshman this fall at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where she will follow a pre-med curriculum.
"I wanted to be a doctor since I was a little girl," she says, "and I thought the program would help me learn what type of doctor I wanted to be."
Gomez intends to become an obstetrician/gynecologist and hopes to return to Oakland to practice.
"I see a lot of Latina women who don't get the comprehensive health care they deserve," she says. "Also, I am bilingual and that will help."
Inspiring the study of science
Ann Chester, founder and executive director of the Health Sciences and Technology Academy (HSTA) in West Virginia, acknowledges that role models for minorities in education are rare.
"We have to provide ways for them to get over the fact that there are no peers that have done it before them," she says of her HSTA students. Some of them are the first in their families to go to college.
HSTA, which celebrates its 10-year anniversary this year, offers science, math and technology classes to minority and low-income high school students at three college campuses in West Virginia. Approximately 70 percent of the students stay with the program from start to finish.
The program is geared to inspire kids who might not ordinarily be interested in science. The whole reason HSTA exists is that we realized that the potential (of the students) was not being reached.
Since 1998 nearly 600 HSTA students graduated from high school and 96 percent went on to college. Nearly 60 percent of these students are headed for health-related careers.
The West Virginia Legislature in 1997 gave HSTA its stamp of approval when it decided to offer state college tuition and fee waivers to any student who successfully completes the program. Graduate and medical school costs are also footed by the state if the student attends a West Virginia state school.
"The program is geared to inspire kids who might not ordinarily be interested in science," says Chester. "The whole reason HSTA exists is that we realized that the potential (of the students) was not being reached."
While SMYSP, HSTA and FACES for the Future all differ in their approaches to bolstering low-income and minority student education, their goals are the same.
Each program visualizes a future where underserved students are given the means to achieve at their highest level.
Students like Joseph Mensah who is now very focused on getting the best grades he can after attending Stanford's summer program.
While on the Stanford campus, the 15-year-old high school junior completed a hospital rotation in anesthesiology where he saw a hip replacement surgery first-hand; he studied the intricate workings of the brain and heart by observing cadavers; he attended medical terminology lectures and debated the ethics of stem cell research.
"I can honestly say this program changed me. It could be overwhelming sometimes, but it was great. I am definitely going to try extremely hard in school," he says.