High school students today, health care professionals tomorrow

Teenagers set sights on success with summer program

By Sandra Gray

UMass Medical School Communications

August 03, 2012
  High School Health Careers Class of 2012 members Phylis Mukundi (left) and William Rodriguez paused to reflect on their transformative experiences. 
  Related link on UMassMedNow:
It’s never too early to start: High School Health Careers Program puts teens on the right path

Now in its fourth decade, the High School Health Careers (HSHC) program at UMass Medical School this summer hosted 14 local teenagers interested in health care and science. As intended, in just four short weeks the experience transformed them  from kids with blurry visions into young adults with clear goals and the know-how to achieve them.


HSHC is a tuition-free program for Massachusetts high school students who are from minorities underrepresented in health care, or are economically or educationally disadvantaged. Offering opportunities to learn about the broad spectrum of health care and science professions, the program incorporates enrichment activities and seminars in cultural and contemporary health issues with rigorous academics. Internships give students the opportunity to interact with patients as well as physicians and other health care professionals.

Worcester North High School senior Phylis Mukundi and Worcester Technical High School junior William Rodriguez exemplify the promise and caliber of the HSHC Class of 2012. Both spoke to UMassMedNow about their backgrounds and aspirations, and how participation in HSHC has helped bring them closer to their goals.

Phylis Mukundi
A rising junior and member of the Health Sciences Academy at North High, Mukundi moved to the United States just three years ago, when her parents brought her and two siblings from Kenya in search of a better life. “I have always wanted to work in a hospital setting,” said Mukundi, citing her own primary care physician, adolescent medicine specialist and clinical associate professor of pediatrics Pauline Sheehan, MD, as a role model.

Conducting health disparities research, a centerpiece of the program, resonated with Mukundi as an immigrant. Familiar with the pain and suffering resulting from limited access to health care in her native country, and thinking that health care was freely given here, she was shocked to learn otherwise. “I’m researching cardiovascular disease in African-Americans compared to the general population,” she said. “I’m African American, but never knew that we are at higher risk for every major disease, all having to do with lack of education and socioeconomic status. I would like to change that.”

Disparities research was enlightening, but the highlight for Mukundi was her internship in the outpatient neurology clinic, where she shadowed nurses and interacted with patients, many elderly and suffering from dementia and other cognitive disabilities. “I saw things that might scare me away, but they didn’t,” she recalled. “It helped me know that helping patients is what I want to do.”

William Rodriguez
The family of 16-year-old William Rodriguez has struggled with financial and health problems, and they support his desire to do something about both. “I want to make a change in my family, do what I want in life and do better for the family I’ll probably have one day,” he said of the passion and hard work that brought him to UMMS. Tracing his dream of becoming a biomedical researcher, Rodriguez recalled learning about DNA in elementary school as his defining moment. He is now a member of the Allied Health Academy focusing on biotechnology at Worcester Tech, where he learned about HSHC.

Rodriguez’s health disparities project—for which he and classmate Kassandra Rivera won the award for best poster presentation—explored the impact of HIV/AIDS on Hispanic men and women in Massachusetts. “We got a broad perspective on what’s been done to try to solve problems in the system,” he noted. “I also want to care for patients, so it was enlightening to get patient perspectives as well as the scientific perspective.”

Learning about the MD/PhD option expanded Rodriguez’s future vision. “I’m glad I learned about the sort of things you have to do as an undergraduate to get in the program as a junior in high school rather than after I was already in college, so I can plan ahead,” he said.

View the HSHC Class of 2012 video, produced by Thomas Toney, BA, information technology instructor for the program, to meet the rest of the class and get a glimpse of them in action during their time on a campus that many of them hope to return to some day.


High School Health Careers Class of 2012

  • Otuwe Anya
    Spirit of Knowledge Charter School ‘14
  • Gabrielle Bailey
    Baypath Vocational High School ‘13
  • Hannah Cao
    University Park Campus School ‘14
  • Kianna Clarke
    Worcester Technical High School ‘14
  • Abigail Danso
    North High School ‘14
  • Yaniz Lopez-Colon
    North High School ‘13
  • Phylis Mukundi
    North High School ‘13
  • Loice Njoki
    Worcester Technical High School ‘13
  • Jaime Paniagua
    Baypath Vocational High School ‘13
  • Nicole Phan
    Doherty Memorial High School ‘13
  • Kassandra Rivera
    North High School ‘13
  • Wileysha Rodriguez
    Burncoat High School ‘13
  • William Rodriguez
    Worcester Technical High School ‘14
  • Priscilla Sena
    Algonquin Regional High School ‘13