By Wendy Sarubbi | June 16, 2014 1:28 pm

Three years ago, Ashley Williams, a 2014 graduate of Orlando’s Jones High School, couldn’t imagine heading to college to become a nurse. But thanks to a UCF College of Medicine effort to increase the diversity of community healthcare providers, she is doing just that – on a full scholarship. Williams is one of the 12 inaugural students in UCF’s Health Leaders pipeline program – 100 percent of the participants — who will attend college in the fall. And all are planning to major in health-related studies, from microbiology to nursing.

For the past three years, Health Leaders provided the Jones students with tutoring and skills development in areas like critical thinking and research. Students attended summer camps, where they learned about health careers, used microbiology to identify a criminal suspect, and saw how strokes damage the human brain. They came to the medical school for tours and learning enhancement. Perhaps most importantly, they were mentored by UCF faculty and students to believe they could be successful in health careers.  “To be honest, I was really scared to go into school in a big field such as medicine,” said Williams, who will enter Rollins College in Winter Park this fall.  “Being in the Health Leaders program, I faced a fear and a challenge that I’ve always had, and it really helped me overcome it.”

Dr. Lisa Barkley, the College of Medicine’s assistant dean for diversity and inclusion, and a family physician who specializes in adolescent and sports medicine, began Health Leaders when she came to the new medical school in 2010. Her goal: prepare students from medically underserved communities for health careers and bring the economic development promises of Orlando’s emerging Medical City to all of its residents. In the last three years, the pipeline has grown from Jones High’s Medical Magnet Program to high schools in Osceola County and to Orlando’s Memorial Middle School. Fifteen students signed up to be in the first Jones cohort. Twelve participated for all three years.

“Once you believe that you can do something yourself, then nobody can stop you,” Dr. Barkley said. “I hope they really internalize that they can be doctors, nurses, pharmacists; whatever they want to be, that they really have confidence in themselves and that they can achieve the goals they want to achieve.”

The adage that “it takes a village to raise a child” fit the Health Leaders program, as UCF undergraduate, graduate and medical students and faculty from the colleges of medicine, education, the Center for Emerging Media and community educators worked with the Health Leaders. Dr. Carolyn Hopp of UCF’s College of Education spent several tutoring sessions teaching students to critically discuss and think about the ethical issues in “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” The book tells the story of an African-American woman whose cells were taken in 1951 – without her knowledge – and used in medical research. That action led to the field of biomedical ethics and regulations requiring informed consent by patients before samples are taken. As she worked with the Jones students, Dr. Hopp said she was inspired by her late father, Dr. LeRoy T. Walker, the first African-American to coach a U.S. men’s Olympic track team and to serve as the president of the U.S. Olympic Committee. “My father’s mantra was ‘Excellence without excuse,’”  she said. “I want to teach the students that if you are disciplined and work hard, you can be absolutely anything you want to be.”

One of the inspired students is Regia Windom, this year’s Jones High valedictorian, who will enter Florida A&M University in the fall to study biology and hopes to go on to medical school. “I was introduced to a lot of amazing people through the Health Leaders program,” she said. “I got to see their success and what they’ve done, so it made me want to do the same.”

Creating a diverse health workforce is imperative given the increasing diversity of Orlando, Florida and the world, Dr. Barkley explains. “More healthcare workers must resemble the patients they treat,” she said, adding that current healthcare disparities occur in part because minorities may feel disengaged by the doctors, nurses and other professionals who should be the most sensitive to their needs. As part of the Health Leaders program, Williams led a research effort that showed 67 percent of Jones High students only received healthcare because they were involved in sports.

As she led a Health Leaders graduation event on June 4, Dr. Barkley challenged the college-bound youngsters to lend a helping hand to the next generation of aspiring health professionals. “Your charge is to help someone else behind you,” she said. “So that we can all continue to grow, and keep that pipeline going strong.”

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