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Youth Explore Health Careers by Getting to Know Those in the Know

UNITE-LA gives 11th graders in South Los Angeles opportunities to explore careers in health care. This story is part of a series highlighting 2015 Youth Opportunity Fund grantees that are supporting innovative, scalable programs that place low-income youth on a path to college and career success. The Fund is led by the Citi Foundation and America’s Promise Alliance.

Juniors at Hawkins Community Health Advocates School were reading the American classic, The Catcher in the Rye. But instead of simply exploring literary devices such as foreshadowing or metaphors, they also discussed tortured narrator Holden Caulfield’s mental health and analyze statistics on depression.

It was a lesson in the traditional subjects of English and math as well as a lesson in career opportunity, offering students an engaging look at mental health work and the possibility of a profession they might not have otherwise considered.

Suzanne Silverstein, right, director of the Psychological Trauma Center at Cedars-Sinai, displays examples of art therapy to students during Mental Health Careers Day, arranged by UNITE-LA at Hawkins Community Health Advocates School.

“Many of our students don’t really have a context of the world that they’re heading into, and that disconnect fuels the dropout rates,” says Brian Boyle, a UNITE-LA career specialist who works with the high school students. “How do you get students to attach to their education in these environments beyond saying, ‘You need to learn this algebra equation,’ or ‘You need to finish this essay’?”

His answer: Use real-world examples and connections to professionals to give young people the skills and confidence to change their trajectory toward college and career.

In this joint effort with the Office of the Mayor and the Los Angeles Unified School District, UNITE-LA—a nonprofit affiliate of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce—aims to prepare youth for the workforce and paid summer internships with local health care institutions. The timing for this program couldn’t be better, as California faces a shortage of professionals and lack of diversity in the health care sector, an industry that promises to grow as the state ages.

The UNITE-LA program is aligned with the school district’s Linked Learning initiative, which blends academics, career and technical education, and tangible experiences to increase students’ options after graduation.

How it Works

The UNITE-LA initiative, informally called the City Youth Opportunity Program, is embedded in the 11th grade curriculum at the three participating schools in low-income, predominantly Hispanic areas of Los Angeles—Hawkins Community Health Advocates School, Huntington Park Institute of Applied Medicine, and the Orthopaedic Medical Magnet High School.

The program was  launched in 2015 with support from the Youth Opportunity Fund, funded by the Citi Foundation. It aims to deepen students’ exposure to the health care industry through a variety of activities, including field trips to hospitals and medical offices, guest speakers, resume writing, job shadowing, career coaching and mock interviews.

Students who earn a Workforce Readiness Certificate become eligible for a competitive summer health care internship that UNITE-LA arranges. Of the 393 students in the UNITE-LA program, 270 have become certified; UNITE-LA seeks to make 150 internships available.

The Rhythm of the School Year

Eleventh graders at Huntington Park Institute of Applied Medicine present to a panel that includes teachers and health care professionals details of a project exploring the effects of toxins in their heavily industrial community.

Near the beginning of their junior year of high school, students take assessments to determine attitudes about school and career and identify possible occupations based on interests and personality.

“We’re in that process of self-awareness—this is about the students and how much they know about their future aspirations and how they discover their career,” says Boyle.

The program builds on the assessments with visits to career-focused fairs, including the Chamber of Commerce’s L.A. Cash for College event in the fall.

For several weeks, as part of their regular coursework, the students participate in interdisciplinary projects blending research with real-life applications. The UNITE-LA program builds into the projects discussion of related careers—such as mental health workers for the Holden Caulfield project.

As the students work on their projects, UNITE-LA arranges related field trips so students can interact with professionals and deepen their understanding of the jobs. When students at the Orthopaedic Medical Magnet school studied centrifugal force as it relates to medical devices, for example, they got to visit biomedical researchers at a University of Southern California lab.

The projects culminate in presentations to judging panels that include doctors and hospital administrators who evaluate students’ performance.

A Boost in Confidence and a Path Toward the Future

Janeth Preciado Vargas, at the front of the room on the left, and Rosie Perez, both students at Huntington Park Institute of Applied Medicine make a presentation to Community Hospital of Huntington Park administrators proposing a partnership for a community health fair.

The contact with professionals makes the students who often don’t have such role models feel like they belong—and can succeed—in professional settings.

That facet has energized 16-year-old Janeth Preciado Vargas, whose parents left school as children in Mexico to help support their families.

“I’ve always been a very outgoing person, but me being able to practice what I have to do—speak to people and persuade them—it’s really helped me develop my skills,” says Vargas, a Huntington Park junior.

She got to test those skills by working with other students to plan a community health fair at her school. With another schoolmate, Vargas sold administrators at Community Hospital of Huntington Park on the idea of partnering for the event, scheduled for May 21. Using her best diction, she walked through a PowerPoint presentation she helped create.

Joe Lopez-Cepero, the hospital’s chief nursing officer, says those kinds of interactions with students bring hospital staff closer to the community they serve while supporting the next generation of health care professionals.

“It’s a feel-good, fulfilling thing that we have the opportunity to do,” Lopez-Cepero says. “We’re helping to guide and direct the future of health care.”

Dana Ruelas yearns to be part of that future. A junior at Hawkins Community Health Advocates School, she’s fascinated by the mechanics of the heart and hopes to become a cardiothoracic surgeon. Through the UNITE-LA program, she scored a paid summer internship at Cedars-Sinai, a top hospital.

Ruelas, 16, is hoping the experience will allow her to shadow doctors and nurses and comfort patients.

“I’m excited, because it’s a hospital,” she says. “I’m not going to be spending my summer working at a fast food restaurant, but at a hospital—my dream, my goal.”

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The Youth Opportunity Fund is part of the Citi Foundation’s
Pathways to Progress U.S. commitment—a three-year, $50 million investment to give 100,000 low-income youth in the United States the opportunity to develop the workplace skills and leadership experience necessary to compete in a 21st century economy.

To learn more about nonprofits working to place low-income young adults on a path to success, check out other Year Up Bay Area in San Francisco, CIS of Miami and Youth Venture in Boston.