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Seeing the Future

The Future Health Professionals Club at North Chicago Community High School, led by RFU graduate student mentors, is an investment in a more diverse and culturally sensitive health professions workforce that can help address disparities in care.

Rosalind Franklin University is committed to the education and training of a more diverse healthcare workforce to meet the needs of our increasingly diverse nation. Evidence shows that diversity in the health professions helps improve access to care for patients who belong to racial and ethnic minority groups, results in greater patient satisfaction and a better education for healthcare students.

The university is working through local secondary schools to help build pipelines for underrepresented students into the health professions. At nearby North Chicago Community High School (NCCHS), RFU graduate students orchestrate and volunteer for the Future Health Professionals Club (FHPC). Founded in 2013 by Julie Witkowski, MD ’16, as a Franklin Fellowship project, the FHPC provides academic support and mentorship and offers exposure to healthcare topics and professions.

Sumender Sharma, CMS ’20, who helps lead the FHPC, has special empathy for students who need convincing that health professions are within reach. Growing up in northern India, he experienced extreme poverty and lack of access to health care. He recalls an uncle gone blind from chicken pox and his family’s struggle to find and afford competent medical care for his own serious childhood injury.

“Those experiences are still in my head,” he said. “I want to keep them there. They give me motivation.”

NCCHS students live in a community designated by the federal government as a medically underserved population, in part because of economic and cultural barriers to care. 

“It’s like Dr. Welch [RFU president and CEO] says,” said Sumender. “To address health issues in underserved areas, people who live in those areas have to be part of the change. How do you involve them? You prepare them.”

I know that some [of these students] will make it to RFU or another school, and that the help we gave was a defining factor.
SUMENDER SHARMA, CMS ’20

Interprofessional teams of RFU students also support skills development in the high school’s Healthcare Careers Pathway. Designed in collaboration with RFU, the pathway, now in its fourth year, offers a guided curriculum and the opportunity for NCCHS students — 98 percent of whom belong to groups underrepresented in medical and healthcare fields — to gain industry-recognized credentials, including emergency medical technician and nurse assistant certifications.

During a visit in February, the RFU student team assisted pathway sophomores in a synthetic blood typing exercise. Students in the pathway and FHPC have also learned through brief lectures and hands-on demonstrations about heart and lung sounds, blood pressure and pulse-taking, upper and lower extremities, the reflex response and lymph nodes and thyroid function.

“It gives our kids a career focus and a connection to what they’re studying,” said Jeff Hollenstein, MA, lead teacher for the program. “It just makes their time here more meaningful.”
Seventeen students of the 27 in the senior pathway cohort, many who also attend the after-school club and participate as pre-health students in community health screenings, are on track for careers in the healthcare field.

“They’re pursuing four-year or associate degrees, certificate programs, or the military,” Mr. Hollenstein said. “Our mentoring and pathway programs have dramatically boosted the number of our students who understand that a future in health care is a realistic goal.”

After the bell rings, the FHPC is in session. Senior Mayra Fuentes walks in, hoping to speak with RFU medical students. She has been accepted by DePaul University, University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Iowa, and she’s mulling pre- med. Alexa Zajecka, CMS ’20, encourages her to explore the path she took, through DePaul programs that streamline and support entry to RFU, under the Alliance for Health Sciences.

“It’s hard, but it’s definitely worth it,” Alexa says and offers Mayra her email.

Mayra wonders aloud, “What if it’s too hard? I’m not good at taking tests.”

“You’ll improve at that,” Arshan Chaudhri, CMS ’20, tells her. “Slowly, as you take more tests in undergrad, you’ll improve. I wasn‘t a great test-taker either.”

In Mayra, who came to the U.S. from Mexico in the fifth grade, Sumender sees courage and determination. He tells her how upon arriving in the U.S., he applied for admission to a
community college, but failed the English placement exam. He spent six months in language immersion, and another six months in ESL. Only then did he begin his first year of college. He earned his bachelor’s seven years later, having worked throughout to help support his family in India.

“Don’t give up,” he tells Mayra.

Mayra has learned, with the help of RFU mentors like Sumender and Alexa and Arshan, that success in medical school is “not just passing classes, not just memorization, but understanding processes.”

Our mentoring and pathway programs have dramatically boosted the number of our students who understand that a future in health care is a realistic goal.
JEFFREY HOLLENSTEIN, MA

“Becoming a doctor is a process,” Sumender tells students. “When I see students in the pathway and FHPC, their keen interest, their ability to retain information, their motivation to learn, I know that some of them will make it to RFU or another school, and that the help we gave was a defining factor.”

In recalling their own struggles, in sharing their experiences, RFU student mentors can help instill confidence in future health professionals, increase their own cultural competence and become better, more insightful clinicians.

“It’s very easy to get carried away with our own burdens of learning and competition,” Sumender said. “FHPC reminds us why we do this, why we want to become doctors and take this very long journey.”

This story was originally published in the Spring 2017 of Helix.