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Internship program provides students with 'life-changing' opportunities in health field

Internship program provides students with 'life-changing' opportunities in health field

You can hear the passion in their voices when they describe their experiences with Health Career Connection, and how that internship altered the course of their lives.

“It definitely was the best experience I ever had,” said Sonthonax Vernard, who interned with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Princeton, NJ, while he was a student at Temple University. “It opened so many doors.”

“It was life-changing,” said Isidro Ramirez, who interned at Golden Valley Health Centers in Merced, Calif., while he was a student at UC Merced. “It left me with a burning desire to really pursue a medical education program and continue to contribute to the health care needs of the neediest in the Central Valley community.”

As I wrote last week, Health Career Connection helps prepare the next generation of talented, diverse health leaders and professionals by connecting them to internships, mentors and health professions schools. The 23-year-old program, which operates in seven regions across the country, has provided more than 1,400 students with paid summer internships, most in the past 10 years.

The organization’s founder, Jeff Oxendine, recently won a 2013 James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award for this work. He encouraged me to speak with program alumni, to truly capture the program’s impact.

Vernard is a second-year student at UC Berkeley and is pursuing two masters degrees - one in public health and another in public policy. But, he told me with emotion in his voice, his life could have easily taken a different path.

“I barely graduated high school and scored an 890 on my SATs,” said Vernard, who grew up in a lower-income Long Island neighborhood. “During my senior year in high school, my assistant principal told me I wouldn’t make anything of my life. That motivated me to try and prove her wrong. HCC only helped me to realize my potential.”

He eventually enrolled at Temple University, and earned the internship at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in 2005. While there, he researched the country’s nursing shortage and worked with the foundation's Hurricane Katrina Task Force. He loved the work - and the way the internship program offered workshops on careers, leadership, and graduate school opportunities.

“Health Career Connection was definitely, without a doubt, the best program I’ve ever been a part of,” said Vernard. He was a Barbara Jordan Health Policy Scholar in Washington, D.C. the following summer.

Vernard said the internship connected him to other talented students of color with dreams and ambitions. Today, Vernard, now 28, said he’s dedicated to providing that similar experience to other students of color. “My big thing is helping students from low-income communities get access to health care and higher education learning,” he said.

Ramirez grew up in Dos Palos, a small agricultural town in California’s Central Valley. He worked in the fields with his family while he was in high school.

He earned the Health Career Connection internship at Golden Valley Health Centers in 2011, while he was a pre-health student at UC Merced. He worked with different patients to help them manage their own health and take charge of their lives, he said.

Before the internship, he said, he wasn’t sure what career path he would pursue. But, “after this internship, I really narrowed it down to community health and primary care. It really gave me a well-rounded, better understanding of the complex world of health care, and the health disparities present in the Central Valley.”

The experience opened his eyes to health care needs in the region and opened up more opportunities. After that internship he worked as a medical scribe at a nearby trauma center and did research with the UC Merced Health Sciences Research Institute. He was also the first student volunteer with Golden Valley Health Center’s homeless health care program.

Ramirez, who graduated from UC Merced in 2012, and hopes to enroll in medical school, said Health Career Connection is helping to create homegrown health care leaders for communities across the country. Without Health Career Connection, “hundreds of students, like myself, would have a harder time navigating their way around, and reaching their dreams, and helping to build healthier communities,” he said.

PHOTO CREDIT: ISIDRO RAMIREZ

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