By Aaron J. Byzak, MBA, FACHE
Joselin Reyes had dreams of a career in the medical field, helping others and making a difference in the world. She was determined to accomplish her goal, but the odds were stacked against her. She is the youngest of four children and none of her siblings graduated from high school. Both of her parents are native Spanish speakers with limited English ability. Her family could give her emotional support, but she did not have the financial and educational support needed to make her dreams come true.
When we set out to create the HERE Initiative (Health + Education + Research = Empowerment), a community outreach program designed to address some of the unmet needs of San Diego’s south bay and southeastern regions, we had students like Joselin in mind. We wanted to address several of the key social determinants of health, namely health care access, education, and workforce development.
One of our key goals was to inspire youth to achieve educational and professional success in the world of health care—and to motivate their family members to do the same. That is why we chose sponsorship of high school-based health academies as one of the nine projects of the HERE Initiative. These academies help students from historically underserved communities meet their “A through G” requirements—the seven general subject courses need for acceptance to University of California or California State University campuses. In these health academies, the courses are infused with a health care focus.
Unfortunately, for years the academies were poorly resourced and had few, if any, community partners. One of the programs, which had been around for more than a decade, had only $700 in its annual budget. That’s when UC San Diego Health stepped in.
Since 2012, UC San Diego Health has sponsored four of these academies with more than 2,000 students from ethnically and culturally diverse backgrounds. Each of the schools receives $15,000 annually in financial support—$10,000 going directly to the lead teacher in the program and the remaining $5,000 directed by UC San Diego Health to meet other programmatic needs. We also provide in-kind support for health academy students by offering immersive tours of UC San Diego Health’s world-class facilities, allowing them to experience the health care environment and interact with our staff.
Additionally, our leaders—ranging from physicians, researchers, and nurses to administrators, technicians, and facility managers—go into their classrooms to deliver guest lectures. The idea is to show students the breadth of careers available in health care.
Seniors in the health academy also compete for coveted internship spots within UC San Diego Health or at such partner organizations as the American Heart Association. These are real-world experiences that help inform their decision making process. By supporting these health academies, we have helped students discover the path to their future.
At first, Joselin thought her path was to become a pharmacist. We brought her to an event at the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at UC San Diego to meet students and professors. She gained insight into the field, but ultimately decided that a career as a pharmacist wasn’t for her.
It wasn’t until Joselin completed her internship at our medical center in 2014 that she found her calling. After completing internships in both the Family and Maternity Care Center and the Call Pool, which exposed her to a variety of different departments, Joselin decided to pursue a nursing career in the fast-paced environment of the emergency room.
Fast forward to 2015. Joselin is now a sophomore in a nursing program at a college in San Diego. She works, goes to school, and serves as an ambassador for the HERE Initiative.
If that weren’t amazing enough, her family is now following her lead. Her mother, Maria, is signed up for English classes at a local adult school and wants to study computers in college. Her father, who only attended school until the 4th grade, wants to return to school as well.
At UC San Diego Health, we see Joselin and her family as an inspiring example of how meaningful collaborations and partnerships like the HERE Initiative can begin to empower communities and address social determinants of health—one family at a time.
Aaron Byzak is director of government and community affairs for UC San Diego Health Sciences, and assistant clinical professor at the UCSD Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.