UI gives youth health-care experience

BY HAYLEY BRUCE | APRIL 08, 2011 7:20 AM

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Briana Wessley had no idea she was going to extract DNA from a banana when she woke up Thursday morning.

But that’s what the 14-year-old Columbus Community Middle School student did as part of University of Iowa’s Project HOPE.

“It looked kind of disgusting,” she said.

But the dissection won’t prevent her from wanting to become a forensic psychologist.

The simulation was one of five put on through a collaboration of the University of Iowa College of Education and the UI’s various health-science colleges. It was part of a project that aims to offer health-care career education to children of under-represented minorities and rural communities.

Project HOPE first started in 2005 as a general career education program, and it has now expanded into a weeklong event in which eighth-graders work with graduate students to target their interests, sign up for simulations, and get hands-on experience in their area of interest — ranging from dentistry to psychology.

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“Kids about as young as 2 start narrowing their [career] options based on ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and their perceptions of their abilities; it’s pretty young,” said UI Associate Professor Saba Ali, the director of Project HOPE. “And so what we wanted to do was try to really broaden their opportunities, especially for underrepresented minorities, in health sciences.”

Earlier in the week, students participated in mock interviews, went through a résumé and cover letter workshop, and discussed their interests.

Then, the roughly 80 middle-schools students ranked their simulations and traveled from Columbus Junction to the UI as the final event of the week.

Funded with an $11,000 grant from Roy J. Carver General Trust, Ali said the UI aimed to pair the need for young students to gain hands-on work experience with the ways Iowa’s economy is growing. Officials decided to focus on careers in health sciences.

“One of the things the health-science world is trying to do is really trying to grow the population of bilingual and culturally competent health-science workers,” Ali said. “This is really to increase the numbers … because what we know is they’re more likely to practice in medically underserved areas.”

Briana said she enjoyed the program so much she plans to attend the UI.

“I always thought that this was maybe a party college,” she said, shaking a strand of curly hair out of her face. “But now that I see all these students and they’re really dedicated to their studies, I realize it’s a pretty good college … and it will let me become what I want to be.”

Teachers with the school said they thought the project was “wonderful.”

“The students really seemed to enjoy the program, and, besides that, got a lot out of it,” Columbus Community Middle School science teacher Jan Rutt wrote in an e-mail. “I really feel they have a better idea of what a ‘career’ is and how they will attain one in the future.”

Columbus Community Middle School paraeducator Tammi Edwards emphasized the importance of introducing students to different careers at an impressionable age.

“You know, these kids are our future,” she said. “And if they don’t decide what they’re going to do, we could be lost forever.”

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