Putting Medical Careers Within Reach

How a six-year science and medical enrichment program gives underserved students the opportunity for success.

Enmanuel de la Nuez never dreamed of becoming a doctor. That is, until the morning that he and his fellow sixth-grade classmates learned about the Lang Youth Medical Program at NewYork-Presbyterian.

“They gathered us into the auditorium and showed a video,” he says, “then shared all the things we’d see and do — surgeries, getting to meet doctors, trips, and internships during the summer. It seemed like a really cool thing to do.”

Originally from the Dominican Republic, Enmanuel, now 17, immigrated to the U.S. in 2010 when he was 10. With his impeccable vocabulary, you’d never know English is his second language. A star student in science and math, he admits he’d never thought about what he wanted to do with his life, but he couldn’t help but be excited by the idea of being mentored by doctors and residents at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

“The idea of meeting professionals seemed like I’d be able to find a path, an inspiration, a person I could look up to. It was a huge ‘Why not?’ for me,” says Enmanuel, now an 11th-grader at Beacon High School and in his fifth year as a Lang Youth scholar.

“The idea of meeting professionals seemed like I’d be able to find a path, an inspiration, a person I could look up to. It was a huge ‘Why not?’ for me.”

— Enmanuel de la Nuez

The six-year science and medical enrichment program was founded in 2003 when NewYork-Presbyterian partnered with noted philanthropist Eugene Lang to inspire and prepare public school students in New York City’s School District 6 — a historically underserved district in the Washington Heights and Inwood community — to become future leaders in science and healthcare.

The first graduating class was in 2009. Since then, 75 students have graduated from the “miniature medical school,” public health, and college prep program, which starts in seventh grade and ends in 12th grade. All of the graduated scholars have been accepted to four-year colleges or universities, and the majority pursue science or healthcare-related majors.

“They remind me so much of me when I was a kid,” says Dr. Mara Minguez, the program’s medical director, a pediatrician at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, and associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics and Population & Family Health at Columbia University Medical Center. “From a very young age, I knew I wanted to become a doctor, and I worked really hard to get where I am.”

A Rigorous and Rewarding Curriculum

Each winter, Lang Youth program coordinators make presentations to sixth-grade students at 25 partnering schools within the community. Students then apply. “We receive about 100 applications for typically 14 spots each year,” says Maria Molina, Lang Youth’s program manager. Grades, school attendance, and teacher recommendations are taken into consideration as well as two student-written essays and a personal statement from their parents. Students and their parents are interviewed before being accepted.

“We’re not just recruiting students; we’re recruiting families,” says Molina.

For the next six years, the scholars commit to attending the program every Saturday during the academic year from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and five days per week in July at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center’s campus, completing nearly 300 hours of course work and activities every year.

“They grow up with one another,” says Molina. “By the end of the program they’re practically brothers and sisters.”

Each year, scholars focus on a new set of skills to prepare for the medical field. In Phase I (seventh–ninth grades), they build a solid foundation in the sciences through interactive and hands-on learning experiences. “Students participate in dissections and understanding the human body,” says Molina. “It’s like a mini-medical school.” In Phase II (10th–12th grades), scholars apply their knowledge of health and science through a community and global health curriculum in which they explore local health issues such as obesity, access to care, and asthma in Washington Heights and Inwood.

There is also a heavy focus on internships, which match students with clinics and departments at NewYork-Presbyterian and throughout the community, giving them hands-on experience in a professional health workplace. Students are mentored by NewYork-Presbyterian physicians, nurses, and healthcare personnel, and the Lang staff. In addition, college preparation is taken very seriously. Scholars participate in intensive standardized test preparation and college campus tours and get assistance with scholarship research and college applications.

The summer program has a camplike feel. Students arrive at the Hammer Health Sciences building at Columbia University Medical Center at 9 a.m. and stay until 3 p.m. Monday through Friday during July. Younger students spend time exploring environmental medicine topics like air pollution and climate change, taking educational field trips, and shadowing health practitioners and administrators at NewYork-Presbyterian for a firsthand look at patient care through clinical rotations.

“For me, personally, I really like the advisers,” says Alexandria Ford, a 13-year-old scholar in her first year of the program. “I love the way they teach, how they are able to take very complicated medical things and just make it simple for us to understand, and then expand on that idea.”

Portrait of Eugene Lang with a group of scholars

Program founder Eugene Lang with a group of scholars

Older students’ time is focused on their individual internships, research projects, and college prep.

“Interning gives scholars a chance to explore their own interests — whether it’s in IT, cardiology, radiology, nursing, pediatrics, and many other fields,” says Dr. Minguez.

“I’m absolutely in love with the internships,” says Enmanuel. “It’s allowed me to make connections that will stay with me the rest of my life.”

At the end of both the summer and academic year program, scholars share what they’ve learned by participating in a science fair-like expo, where they present to NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center staff who have served as mentors, their peers in the program, their parents, and new scholars who will start the program in the fall.

Over the years, it’s remarkable to see how much the students grow both professionally and personally, notes Molina. “To see them presenting their work in front of their educators and peers, it amazes me how articulate and self-confident they’ve become.”

“We’re giving them the resources and tools they need to achieve truly incredible things,” adds Dr. Minguez. “I was 12 years old when I immigrated to this country from Puerto Rico. I didn’t have anyone in my family who was in the medical field, so it was a whole new territory for me. I had to stumble through and pave my own way, and I feel connected to their purpose. We provide support to the scholars as well as the parents; specifically, when it relates to breaking through cultural barriers — for example, (we) help parents understand that a four-year college career is a great option, doable, is safe, and in the end incredibly worth it.”

Molina is also an immigrant. Her family came from Ecuador when she was 3 years old.

“For me, this job is about giving back,’’ she says. “I’m an immigrant — like so many Lang scholars — and a first-generation college graduate. I want to give back to youth who will also be first-generation college students and need that support.”

Full Circle

Many Lang graduates come back as educators of the program, and some are now employed at NewYork-Presbyterian. A 2010 graduate, Danissa Salazar, is a registered nurse and works in the neonatal intensive care unit at NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today without Lang,” Salazar says. “I didn’t know how my life would play out, but I knew that this was something I couldn’t pass up. It’s about the opportunities you take in life, and this was one of those that I’m so glad I said yes to.”

“When you see alumni come back — either as educators of the program’s curriculum or full-time employees at the hospital — it brings it all full circle,” says Molina.

For Enmanuel, he’ll present his end-of-year project this April. His subject: global public health and how government-led health systems and non-government-led entities work together. A complex issue for anyone, much less a high school student. He’ll also be applying to college next year. “I really want to venture outside of New York,” he says. “I would really love to see other parts of the country.”

He’s unsure of the exact direction his career will take but feels he can explore many options. “Last year I would have said neuroscience, but this year I don’t have an answer — yet. I’m fascinated by how technology is implemented in healthcare, like with prosthetics and imaging systems, so we’ll have to see.”

Enmanuel’s younger sister is also in the Lang Youth program, two years behind him.

“She’s so smart and promising,” he says. “I like to think I’ve given her a good example to look up to.”

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