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Summer program introduces high school students to health careers

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Alyssa Hurst

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Irvin Melendez, a rising junior at Aurora’s Rangeview High School, plans to be the first doctor in his family.

“I thought maybe I could study cancer, because my grandma had cancer when I was little,” he says. “After her passing, I decided that I wanted to find a way to help people with this. I decided to study oncology.”

But, until this summer, Melendez hadn’t had much interaction with the realities of health care beyond his weekly date with the television show “Grey’s Anatomy.”

HPH student
An HPH student tests out equipment while visiting St. Joseph's Hospital.

Thanks to the University of Denver’s weeklong Health Professions Highway (HPH) program though, he had the chance to step inside a real hospital trauma room for the first time.

“I saw actual patients,” he says. “We didn’t get to talk to them — I just saw them getting rolled in. But it was cool to see everything outside of the show.”

Thanks to HPH, Melendez, along with 11 other high school students and six DU undergrad mentors, participated in a host of activities designed to showcase the breadth and depth of the health-care industry. The program was created by DU biology teaching assistant professor Barbekka Hurtt and DU alumna Stephanie Tran of College Track, a national organization dedicated to helping high school students from historically underrepresented backgrounds graduate high school and complete college.

The week’s events included a visit to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where, in addition to visiting trauma rooms, students and mentors met with people from a number of different departments. Students also spent half a day exploring DaVita’s Denver-based headquarters to explore roles that support the health-care industry. They even got CPR certified.

For Renee Tracy, also a rising junior at Rangeview, the most exciting part of the week was the health professionals dinner. HPH brought in seven health-care professionals in an intimate setting so the students could meet the pros as whole people. Their robust conversations ranged from work to career paths to academic experiences to hobbies.

Tracy, who hopes to become an orthodontist one day (she misses her braces), had the opportunity to meet with a dentist at the dinner. “I talked to him, and he said he’d give me a tour around CU Denver’s dentistry program, and I’m going to see if I can do that this summer,” she says. “I feel like this program can kind of help me solidify what exactly I want to do in the future.”

While the program helps students explore all aspects of health care, it also works to prepare them for the transition to college, Hurtt says.

Irvin Melendez
Irvin Melendez presents his research on colon cancer.

“A lot of data out there shows that for many students, that first year [in college] is the make-or-break for them,” she explains. “If they don’t feel like they are succeeding in their first year, many students struggle to graduate from college. How do we help them both understand that there are some opportunities in college, but there are also going to be some challenges? And, how do we help them develop strategies to constructively work through the challenges, and hopefully come out stronger?”

The answer, Hurtt says, starts with giving them a taste of the college experience. All of the students spent the week sleeping in dorms with roommates, attending sample lectures and labs, and working on a research project. (Melendez chose to learn more about colon cancer, the disease his grandmother was diagnosed with, while Tracy explored mast cell tumors in dogs to prevent others from losing their pets as she lost hers.)

The six DU undergrads who served as mentors offered sage wisdom from their own experiences both as college students and in pursuing health-related careers. “The mentors were integrated into this from the start as a fundamentally important part of the program,” Hurtt says. “Having students of color who chose to come to DU and who have navigated the academics and could be great role models for students [was very important.] ‘How do you find a community on campus? How do you create a space to grow and thrive?’ It was about what [the students] could learn from the people who have gone before them.”

This was rising junior Sophia Kim’s second year mentoring with the HPH program, and she says she learned as much as the high school participants. “DaVita was my first time being exposed to the industrial side of health care, and it showed not only me, but also the mentees, that there are a lot more professions related to health care beyond just having clinical experience,” says Kim, a pre-health biology major. “I don’t have to be stuck to just becoming one thing.”

Kicking off budding health-care careers among students from historically underrepresented backgrounds — students like Melendez, Tracy and Kim — is necessary for a world in which a majority of patients will come from such backgrounds, Hurtt says.

“Data compiled by the Sullivan Alliance show that in 2017, less than 11% of health professionals of any kind were people of color,” Hurtt says. “If we don’t have people in these positions that can help members of the community who look like them, who have similar lived experiences, who can look at the community environment differently and come up with creative solutions, we’re not going to see the improved health outcomes we want and think we should be seeing.”

After his week with HPH, Melendez is even more fired up to be part of that shift. “I know I have to learn a lot more,” he says, “but I’m going to push myself.”

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