Showing the way: VCU Pipeline puts students on path to health careers

For 10 years, the VCU Pipeline has been putting students of all ages and backgrounds on the path to careers in the health sciences.

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When Kierra Cooke arrived at Virginia Commonwealth University the summer before her freshman year, she was not sure what to expect from college life. It was her first time away from home, and she didn’t know anyone yet. However, she had been accepted into VCU’s Acceleration program, which is a program for incoming freshmen interested in pre-health concentrations, and she knew she wanted to pursue a career path in a health care field.

As part of Acceleration, Cooke came to VCU in July with her peers from the program for a four-week introduction to the university and to health care professions. Cooke and the other Acceleration students lived on the MCV Campus. They toured health care buildings, learned about the various health-related academic programs at VCU, took introductory coursework, engaged in professional skills development and cultural competency workshops, and heard from a variety of speakers. They also tutored local schoolchildren, helping them with math and science, and bonded with each other over their shared interests and aspirations.

Cooke said the experience was invaluable.

“It helped us to see all of these opportunities that were out there for us,” Cooke said. “You could ask any questions that you wanted to ask, and you would get an answer. We weren’t even in school yet, and we’d already made all of these great connections that were going to help us.”

Acceleration is part of VCU’s Health Sciences and Health Careers Pipeline, a group of programs and resources designed to help students pursue health professions of all kinds. The VCU Pipeline, which is part of the Division for Health Sciences Diversity, offers initiatives that help students such as Cooke, who is a first-generation college student, navigate the demanding path to a career in a health field.

The VCU Pipeline is reaching its 10th anniversary this year. It has enjoyed a decade of rapid growth, and the result is a diverse mix of programs that help students ranging from elementary school through to the post-baccalaureate level. The range of resources means that VCU is spreading its reach wide to find and aid students across the spectrum who may be interested in careers in the health sciences.

For instance, Jump Rope to Stethoscope is a pipeline program offered through the VCU Health System Human Resources’ Office of Workforce Development and Strategy. The program reaches children in kindergarten through 12th grade with nursing camps, school career days, hospital tours, health care clubs and courses offered at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School. Another program, the Health Sciences Academy, which offers health sciences exploration courses to students from three local high schools, includes interactive lectures from health care workers, a mentoring program with VCU undergraduates and field trips to the Monroe Park and MCV campuses. The academy is the result of a partnership between the Division of Community Engagement and the Division for Health Sciences Diversity.

Kevin Harris, assistant vice president for health sciences, student initiatives and inclusion, said the success of the VCU Pipeline depends on the many partners that share resources to fuel pipeline programs. The programs feature the participation of both university partners, including schools and various departments, and community partners, including the Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield public school systems and other education entities.

“The degree of collaboration is critical to what we do,” Harris said. “The breadth and scope of the commitment from our schools and other partners is tremendous. They are really the drivers of this program.”

Harris said the VCU Pipeline program has seen accelerated growth in recent years as more schools and programs within the university seek out strategic collaborations such as those in the VCU Pipeline. He and Lisa Webb, executive director of academic affairs in the Division for Health Sciences Diversity, see rich possibilities for expanding the VCU Pipeline model, both within the university and at other colleges and universities. They also believe VCU Pipeline programs offer a promising space to introduce innovative pilot initiatives.

“We’re building bridges, sharing resources and giving students and parents more sensible ways of finding resources that can help them succeed,” Harris said. “We’re seeing a broad commitment from the schools we work with.”

University resources are critical to each of the VCU Pipeline programs. Students have access to facilities and instructors that make for a rich and rewarding experience. In the VCU Acceleration program, for instance, students have mandatory requirements for tutoring sessions, study groups, health-related internships and volunteer hours. They receive a stipend and are eligible for scholarships upon admission to health sciences programs at VCU.

Harris said the university’s commitment itself is an important signal to participating students. It is visible evidence of encouragement that VCU wants them to succeed.

“They can see that we’re serious about this,” Harris said.

Jessica Hart participated in the Summer Academic Enrichment Program at VCU following graduation from James Madison University. The six-week interprofessional program is designed to enhance the academic preparation of students who are seeking to enroll in a health professions school. In the program, Hart took three core courses, received one-on-one instruction, participated in test-taking workshops and attended seminars and networking events. Students receive housing and a stipend.

Hart said the program was a critical aid and “one of the best career decisions I have made thus far.”

“Participating in SAEP gave me the unique opportunity to interact with a diverse group of individuals with interests in medicine, dentistry and pharmacy before entering professional school,” said Hart, who is now a second-year physical therapy student in the doctoral physical therapy program in VCU’s School of Allied Health Professions. “Also, the interdisciplinary nature of every aspect of the program gave me a very accurate perspective of what to expect in the coming years. I strongly believe that my participation and success in SAEP gave me a competitive edge when applying to professional school.”

As important as the university’s resources are the students themselves, according to Webb. The greatest value of the VCU Pipeline programs may be that they place students interested in science and health care fields alongside each other. Students find themselves with like-minded peers who get excited about immersing themselves in health sciences subjects. In that kind of atmosphere, students can find new motivation and capabilities to grow and succeed.

Webb said VCU Pipeline programs bring together students of different races, ethnicities, genders and socioeconomic backgrounds and give them common ground to inhabit. The result is a dynamic, inspired environment. In university-based programs such as Acceleration, students also have access to older students who have gone through the same classes, applications and barrage of decisions and who can serve as mentors for them.

“You bring this group of students together from all over and they’re all focused on health care and it really raises the level of conversation that they’re experiencing,” Webb said.

Cooke said the camaraderie that developed during her time in the VCU Acceleration program was critical to her success as a student. In VCU Acceleration, students live together in a residence hall their freshman year and take pre-health sciences coursework together. Students encourage each other and provide impromptu tutoring and help when assignments prove overwhelming.

“I’m glad that we had each other to help us stay the course,” said Cooke, who graduated from the clinical laboratory sciences program in the VCU School of Allied Health Professions and now works in a laboratory in VCU Medical Center. “It’s easy to give up because the classes can be so tough. If I didn’t have my Acceleration class to help me along, it would have been much harder to do what I did. I’m thankful to all of them for being there.”

Emma Eberwien, now a senior in the clinical radiation sciences program in the VCU School of Allied Health Professions, said her fellow students in Acceleration were reliably supportive of her, as though her success was their own. When she applied to the clinical radiation sciences program at the end of her freshman year, her suitemates from Acceleration aided her in the process, including helping her prepare for the interview process.

“It’s nice to have people supporting you every step of the way,” Eberwien said. “The whole thing was like having a family here.”


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