Chicago — Jayline Perez, 21, graduated three semesters early from Roosevelt University in December 2021. Because her parents and grandparents had only been to elementary school, she credits Rush Education and Career Hub, or REACH, for having changed its future.
“I grew up not really knowing college was an option for me,” he said. “REACH was one of the only outlets I had other than my high school encouraging me to go to college.”
Now Pérez is studying for the entrance exam for medical school and hopes to pursue a career in medicine. Neuroscience interests him, but he may change his mind. Pérez is also working with her mentor, Dr. Susan López, director of diversity, equity, and inclusion for graduate medical education at Rush University Medical Center, helping with COVID-19 health disparities research (working with data from COVID-19 patients to see differences in outcomes based on need for Spanish interpretation) and hosting pre-med “boot camps” for African American and Latino teens.
Pérez’s journey into healthcare began when he joined REACH during his junior year in high school, as part of After School Matters (ASM). The Belmont resident Cragin was interested in health care to some degree, but her summer internship at Rush University Medical Center with REACH’s MedSTEM Explorers program, a hands-on learning and skill-building session, made her it will stay. She recalls that the program’s orientation gave her a sense of belonging.
“I saw that the majority of the participants on the show were women… it’s like saying, ‘Wow, there are women who look like me,’” she said. “They were able to understand my struggles, and I was surrounded by students who have a very similar story to mine. I always felt that people would not understand me because of my cultural background. I grew up here on the Northwest Side, and with all the barriers I had to keep jumping to avoid the traps of poverty. When they brought in other students like that, I was definitely able to resonate with it, because I realized I wasn’t the only one.”
He started with REACH in 2018, but his emotions at finding the truth behind the words “Representation Matters” are still evident years later.
“They weren’t just giving us clinical experience, like working with patients or having that communication with other health care providers, those kinds of resources,” Pérez said. “They were also developing a sense of believing in ourselves. When you have interns helping a patient, even if it’s just pouring water or bringing some towels, you’re doing something for them, and for me it was like, ‘I can really help, I can really go above and beyond.’”
In 2021, of the students served by REACH, 75 percent were female, 90 percent were West Siders, 88 percent were African American or Latino, and 65 percent were first-generation college students. The program provided more than 180 high school and college interns with more than 25,000 paid work-based learning hours and helped 50 percent of MedSTEM Pathways interns and 100 percent of MedSTEM Explorers to obtain one or more industry-recognized credentials (i.e., CPR, basic first aid/lifesaving, phlebotomy technician, or ECG technician). Rush Education and Career Hub is a pathway for students from preschool through college to participate in enrichment opportunities in science and math; its mission is to increase diversity in the STEM and healthcare professions.
“I don’t want our students to just transport patients. Yes, they can start there, but I want them to be able to do more if they want to,” said REACH Executive Director Rukiya Curvey Johnson. “It should be the doctors, it should be the research scientists, it should be some of the anesthesiologists, and so what can we do to get them directly on that path and get higher wages and therefore more benefits already? a happier or better quality of life?
Curvey Johnson has been with REACH for five years and is the former Executive Director of STEM and Strategic Initiatives for Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Having been on the education side for years, he said he saw REACH as an opportunity to be able to inform the industry sector. With 10 partner schools on the Westside and looking for more, Curvey Johnson wants every REACH student to feel what Perez feels about her future: a sense of ownership, confidence, self-agency, and an opportunity to give something back to people.
“That’s something we try to cultivate in all of our students,” he said. “Building a sense of self-efficacy about what they can do to actively make a change, to be a community problem solver, to also be able to address some of the disparities that they see, but also just bring others with them. The fact that Jayline has stepped up with her sister and co-directed our med school boot camp program is just phenomenal. What’s incredibly important is that kind of relationship, and having this kind of peer support to engage and help cheer you on.”
They don’t need to know what path they want to follow in the field of health, they just have to show interest. It is this interest that REACH wants to arouse. REACH’s career guidance tool allows young people to explore the field on their own terms.
“You can click ‘I like to help people’ and it will take you to a couple of careers that align with that, and you’ll have the opportunity to participate and watch not only our shows, [sino] also other programs around the city, as well as activities that can do that you can help more and deepen that interest, “said Curvey Johnson.
As for Pérez, he has only just begun. His retribution work will continue, “God willing, as a medical student a year from now,” he said. She also wants to be a resource to others who are like her in that capacity.
“One of the drivers of health care disparities is that there aren’t many medical professionals who come from underrepresented communities,” Pérez said. “They (REACH) are training those professionals. I know that they are very open, not only to health care but also to information technology and other programs. I hope that one day that will evolve to help someone else, whether as a patient or not, to end up closing that gap.”