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Summer program introduces minority students to health care careers

Ellaine Tee, RN
Elaine Tee, RN
Ellaine Tee, RN
Elaine Tee, RN

(October 5, 2020) The Summer Health Professions Education Program (SHPEP) helped recent Cizik School of Nursing at UTHealth graduate Ellaine Tee, RN, discover her career path – along with the cultural delights of downtown Houston. 

Tee was born in the Philippines, and her family moved to neighboring Fort Bend County when she was six years old. She learned about SHPEP during a Cizik School of Nursing campus tour and decided to apply while then studying at the Wharton County Junior College campus in Sugar Land. The experience encouraged her to apply to Cizik School of Nursing, where she earned her Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree this summer through the school’s Pacesetter program. 

SHPEP is a free summer enrichment program sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. It offers freshman and sophomore college students from groups underrepresented in the health professions the opportunity to strengthen their academic proficiency so that they can successfully apply to and earn degrees from health profession schools. 

“A lot of effort has been put in over the years to recruit minority students from community colleges and underserved areas who usually don’t have as many resources available to them as students who go straight into four-year universities,” explained Erica Yu, PhD, RN, associate dean and chair of the Department of Undergraduate Studies at Cizik School of Nursing. 

The decades-old national program initially focused solely on medical schools, later added dental, and expanded in 2016 to include more interdisciplinary health professions. SHPEP’s 12 program sites highlight various disciplines, and UTHealth is one of seven programs that expose students to nursing careers. 

Each summer, 40 pre-med, 20 pre-dental, and 20 pre-nursing students participate at UTHealth. Most hail from a regional catchment area that includes Texas, Louisiana, New Mexico, and Arkansas, but some have come from much farther away. 

“The interprofessional aspect is a big emphasis for our program,” said Robert Spears, PhD, associate dean for Student and Academic Affairs at UTHealth School of Dentistry. The group is divided into medical, dental, and nursing cohorts, but all students work together. “We want them to learn from each other and understand the value of the different professions.” 

Through the six-week program, students meet and learn from faculty throughout campus and get a taste for different health care professions. They also hear from student “ambassadors” who went through SHPEP and then continued their educations in health care fields. 

Students also gain hands-on experience in a typical year. Tee recalls learning how to fill a cavity at the School of Dentistry and using Sim Lab manikins at the nursing school to practice lumbar taps, intubations, and starting IVs. They also earned Stop the Bleed® certification.

“They get to meet mentors, they get to do things with their hands, and see if this is really what they want to do in their life,” said Pedro Mancias, MD, professor of pediatrics at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth. “I think most medical schools and most professional schools look for students who have gone out of their way to get exposure, so they come out of the SHPEP program with a better application.” 

As with everything else this year, the COVID-19 pandemic made the 2020 experience different. On the upside, moving the program online enabled participants from Hawaii and Puerto Rico to join without traveling, and instructors introduced students to contact tracing skills. On the downside, the class of 2020 missed out on one of Tee’s favorite parts of the program – staying in the Rice University dormitories near campus and building close friendships with her fellow participants. 

“In our downtime, we would travel around Houston. Even though I lived here, I had never had that kind of college experience,” Tee said. The group took in concerts at Hermann Park, went to the Pride Parade, and visited the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. 

Tee keeps up with member of her SHPEP group and ticks off which of them have since gotten into nursing or medical school. “It’s a great program to make connections,” she said, noting that she also built relationships with faculty members who later became her professors at Cizik School of Nursing. 

The biggest benefit was gaining experiences that helped her decide which field of health care to enter. She learned that she enjoys the human element of nursing over pulling teeth (and that she prefers outdoor concerts to modern dance). “I like how they exposed us to different professions,” Tee said. “It ensured that I wanted to be a nurse as opposed to a doctor or dentist.” 

A new group of SHPEP students will benefit from interprofessional exposure to UTHealth schools and faculty in summer 2021. Applications may be submitted between Nov. 1, 2020, and Feb. 5, 2021. Through the nationwide application process, students rank the program sites based on where they would prefer to participate. 

“I would tell a student who is interested that you’re going to have a blast. You are going to meet people from other places, you’re going to make friends for life,” Mancias said. 

Learn more about the SHPEP program at UTHealth, and watch a video featuring Tee’s “class.”

Sherri Deatherage Green

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