WHEN I GROW UP…
WORDS BY EVE JACOBS / PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANDREW HANENBERG
t's April 19th and the health science careers classroom at Sussex County Vocational- Technical School in Sparta is buzzing with high energy. Ready to spring into action, 20 juniors and seniors are dressed in their adult-best, waiting their turns to role-play a job interview. Their future feels so tantalizingly close to them — and so filled with incredible possibilities.
In the current job market, where 53.6 percent of those under age 25 with a bachelor's degree are unemployed or underemployed (according to an analysis of government data conducted for The Associated Press), and many students and their families are drowning in education-related debt, these 17- and 18-year-olds have a huge "leg up." Not only are they better prepared than most to present their best selves to a potential employer, but most chose to "specialize" before they even entered their freshman or sophomore year in high school and will soon reap some substantial rewards.
They are enrolled in a college credit program started almost 20 years ago by Suzanne D'Anna, RDH, MS, the current director of UMDNJ's School of Health Related Professions Health Science Careers program, and Julie O'Sullivan Maillet, PhD, now the interim dean of the school, under a grant awarded by the State of New Jersey. First launched in technical-vocational high schools in Bergen, Sussex and Hudson counties, the program is currently offered in 51 high schools throughout the state, in every county except Salem and Camden.
D'Anna, who taught at Fairleigh Dickinson and Columbia universities before coming to UMDNJ, says the program's early years were hectic and challenging. Developing the curriculum, then teaching the high school teachers how to teach the college-level courses, responding to SOS calls, and simultaneously recruiting additional high schools to make this program available to their students translated into an enormous commitment of time and energy. In those first years, the program's UMDNJ creators spent a lot of time on site in the high school classrooms.
Now, with more than 180 faculty members, 2,500 students, and two to three schools signing up each year (five to six are expected to join next year), D'Anna still maintains close contact with all of the teachers, but does so via phone and email. (She continues to make periodic visits.) Running such a wildly popular program leaves her little "down" time, yet she and Maillet have a goal of making this curriculum available to all interested New Jersey high schools.
High school teachers in this program are granted an adjunct faculty appointment, says Maillet, if they meet UMDNJ's criteria. "Many are nurses with a BSN degree, but all individuals teaching anatomy must have a Master's degree," she says.
"We charge nothing for the program," Maillet continues. "We do this as a community service to give students a chance to learn about the wide range of health career options; and we hope they go on to choose a health profession. Also, their self-esteem soars if they pass the exams and earn college credit before starting college. The students feel very good about that."
Chris McKiernan can vouch for this program's popularity. She is in her 20th year as THE teacher in the allied health program at Sussex County Vocational-Technical School. "Commercial art, engineering and health science are the school's three most popular majors," she says proudly. Cosmetology comes in at number four. Eighty of the high school's 650 or so students will be enrolled in the four-year, health sciences curriculum next year.
McKiernan has built this program "brick by brick"— with help, of course, from D'Anna — into the education magnet it is in Sussex County today. No aspect of its day-to-day operations slips by her attention. Budgets and ordering supplies go hand-in-hand with teaching her students laboratory skills and tough academic subject matter. She also concentrates on forming the kind of supportive relationships that in many of today's over-crowded schools have gone by the wayside. This teacher has several school years to help students wrestle with the challenging science courses and also with the growing pains that most encounter during their high school careers.
What do her students hope to do after high school? Some are interested in veterinary science, nutrition, physical therapy or dental sciences. Others hope to be doctors, pharmacists, athletic trainers or teachers. All are willing to take on a heavy-duty science curriculum that includes basic lab techniques, anatomy and physiology, medical terminology, health dynamics, and microbiology.
"Health dynamics" (also called dynamics of health care in society) introduces students to the many different types of health careers. "Many think they want to be doctors," says D'Anna, "but they don't know what other health professions there are." The teens learn about ethical issues, cultural sensitivity, advocacy, personal hygiene; and also how to take blood pressure and pulse. They complete 10 hours of clinical shadowing as part of the course.
On April 19th, Partnership Day at this high school, students dress in professional clothing and carry a portfolio, which holds a cover letter, resume, a statement of career goals, and a paper or project that shows their ability to do classroom assignments. They have worked hard to pull their presentations together. Remember—many of them have never held a job, or at least not one in health sciences. Each student is interviewed by a professional from a local business (or by D'Anna), and each student is evaluated on his performance.
"The students take this seriously and they improve from year to year," comments McKiernan. Some will even secure a part-time or summer job in a doctor's or dentist's office, a rehabilitation facility or pharmacy as a result of these interviews.
Many of her students go on to college and almost all stay in New Jersey. Some begin their schooling at Sussex County Community College, staying close to home since financing is often an issue, and many of those later join fellow graduates of the high school program at the College of St Elizabeth, and Montclair State, William Paterson, Fairleigh Dickinson and Rutgers universities.
McKiernan actively recruits future participants, hosting a special forensics lab on one Saturday each year in the fall called TECH TREK DAY, when parents can come into the high school and "study" the UMDNJ curriculum. She explains that students who complete these courses have "an ace in the hole." They finish high school with the potential of earning 14 college credits at no cost to their parents or themselves. "Self-study is also available in emergency medicine, and other courses, for the really motivated student," she says. A total of 20 college credits can be earned by the truly ambitious.
In spring of their junior or senior years (and occasionally at the end of the sophomore year) all students in the Health Science Careers program statewide who want college credits for their coursework come to UMDNJ's Scotch Plains campus for testing. (The testing is spread over many days because of the large number of students.) Over the years, 6,000 high school students have taken the tests. "Even if a student chooses not to test for college credits, exposure to the college level courses turns out to be valuable for them," D'Anna says.
With the U.S. economy still faltering, and many young adults floundering in their search for a place in the job market and in their communities, a program that introduces teens to the wide array of professional options in health care is just what the doctor — or dental hygienist, respiratory therapist, physical therapist, radiation technologist, occupational therapy assistant, nutritionist, psychiatric rehabilitation counselor, etc, etc — ordered. The future, for these students, is still filled with incredible professional possibilities in health care because they know about them.