By Wendy Sarubbi | July 23, 2012 5:13 pm

The old adage that “it takes a village to raise a child” certainly fits for the College of Medicine’s Health Leaders program, a partnership designed to increase the diversity of students in medical education and better prepare those youngsters to enter health care professions. A recent summer camp for these students showed the reach of that village.

High school students from Orange and Osceola counties worked in the DNA and microbiology laboratories at the college’s Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences. They conducted DNA evaluations to identify a suspect in a criminal case, discussed medical ethics and learned about job opportunities in health fields. They also received pragmatic training in goal setting, presentation skills, filling out college applications and the courses they need in order to be eligible for advanced programs. At the end of July the students will return to the College of Medicine to present research on what they learned.

Dr. Robert Borgon, an award-winning microbiology teacher at the Burnett school was one of the summer camp teachers. His goal was simple and powerful: help the students reach their dreams. “People assume you have to be a child genius to get into science and medicine,” he said. “I wasn’t a child genius. I loved science and I worked hard. My message to these students is ‘work hard and you can make it.’ I want to show them it’s do-able.”

That’s where the village comes in.

Under the direction of Dr. Lisa Barkley, the College of Medicine’s assistant dean for diversity and inclusion, Health Leaders began in 2011 at Jones High School’s medical magnet program in Orlando. For the past year, Jones students have met on Saturdays with volunteer UCF undergraduate, graduate and medical students as well as faculty members from the colleges of medicine, education, the Center for Emerging Media and community educators. That team has helped the students learn many things that will help them in the future, including critical thinking skills, health education and basic research fundamentals. Now Health Leaders is expanding to high school students in Osceola County and to younger students at Orlando’s Memorial Middle School.

In addition to helping local students, Health Leaders wants to create tool kits for others in K-12 to use to teach even more future health professionals. In that context, UCF’s College of Education is collaborating with the medical school to conduct a scientific study of the minority women in the program to find out what attracted them to subjects like chemistry and math. In addition, this fall a UCF graduate student in the field of Counseling will join the Health Leaders team to develop programs to assist parents and mentors in supporting children as lifelong learners and leaders.

Dr. Carolyn Hopp of UCF’s College of Education is helping to lead those efforts and she also volunteers on Saturdays to teach the Jones students.  She is inspired by the words of her late father, Dr. LeRoy T. Walker, a leading American track and field coach who was 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. Dr. Walker later served as chancellor of North Carolina Central University. “My father’s mantra was ‘Excellence without excuse,’” Dr. Hopp said. “I want to teach the students that if you are disciplined and work hard, you can be absolutely anything you want to be.”

Dr. Hopp emphasizes critical thinking skills and what she calls “habits of mind.” Those disciplined habits, she says, determine how people approach situations and problems. They determine how you discipline yourself to learn more, how you learn to ask questions such as, “What if?” and “What about this?”

During the Health Leaders summer camp, Dr. Hopp helped the students critically discuss and think about the issues and ethics illustrated in the book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” The book tells the story of a poor black farmer whose cells were taken in 1951 – without her knowledge – and became one of the most important tools in medicine. Her cells, which multiplied like no others, were used in medical research and helped develop the polio vaccine, gene mapping and cloning. The taking of her cells led to the field of biomedical ethics and regulations requiring informed consent by patients before samples are taken.

Many of the Health Leaders students are “first generation” college students. They need support, guidance and motivation for getting into higher education and succeeding there, Dr. Hopp says, and champions who believe in them and will help them grow. Haley Congrove, class president at Osceola’s St. Cloud High School, will be the first in her family to attend college. She wants to be a nurse. She said the Health Leaders program “yelled at me” as a way to better understand college and a career in health. “I want to be a nurse because I’m really a people person; I love human interaction,” she said. “This program really opened my eyes.”

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