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Inspiring students to pursue rural health care careers at MedQuest camp

For more than 30 years, OHSU program has given young people hands-on experience, encouraged them to work in health care
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High school students get hands-on practice in health care skills at a March MedQuest camp in The Dalles. More than 30 years ago, MedQuest camps were established to get young people interested in health care careers in the face of a labor shortage. Today, they serve the same purpose, allowing rural Oregon high school students the chance to shadow health care professionals and to try their hand at a range of skills. (Contributed)
High school students get hands-on practice in health care skills at a March MedQuest camp in The Dalles. More than 30 years ago, MedQuest camps were established to get young people interested in health care careers in the face of a labor shortage. Today, they serve the same purpose, allowing rural Oregon high school students the chance to shadow health care professionals and to try their hand at a range of skills. (Contributed)

This summer, Yessenia Garcia-Sanchez, 23, of Umatilla, will achieve a hard-earned dream: becoming a nurse.

Yessenia Garcia-Sanchez
Yessenia Garcia-Sanchez (Courtesy)

She first set her sights on nursing while attending MedQuest, a week-long health career exploration camp that gives rural Oregon high school students the chance to shadow health care professionals and to try their hand at everything from learning to suture to giving practice injections to oranges.

Garcia-Sanchez was inspired while observing a nurse at a children’s clinic. Not knowing anyone who worked in health care, she soaked up all the knowledge that she could while attending MedQuest camps during the summers after her junior and senior years at Umatilla High School.

“MedQuest jump-started my career,” says Garcia-Sanchez, who will graduate this June with a bachelor’s degree from the La Grande campus of Oregon Health & Science University’s School of Nursing. “They provided me so many resources that I probably wouldn’t have gotten into nursing school if it wasn’t for MedQuest.”

‘Grow our own’

Since 1992, MedQuest camps have developed a long, consistent track record of supporting students like Garcia-Sanchez. About 900 students have attended its camps to date, and 85% of former campers surveyed have gone on to enroll in health professional education programs. Of those, about 60% work in rural health care as physicians, physical therapists and emergency medical service personnel, among many other essential health professions.

MedQuest camps are organized by La Grande-based staff with Northeast Oregon Area Health Education Center, which is one of five regional centers of Oregon Area Health Education Centers, or Oregon AHEC, at OHSU. Oregon AHEC and its regional centers provide educational opportunities and supportive pathways that encourage rural students to pursue careers in health care. Guided by its unofficial motto of “grow our own,” Oregon AHEC aims to help the students it serves one day become health professionals in rural Orgon communities. OHSU and other Oregon schools with health professional education programs partner with Oregon AHEC in support of their vital mission.

Need for health care workforce

Oregon AHEC was established in 1991 to help address health care professional shortages that still affect many rural communities and have been exacerbated by national health care workforce shortages affecting urban and rural areas. The organization is part of a network of more than 300 regional U.S. area health education centers, all of which are supported by the U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration. Oregon AHEC is also supported by the state of Oregon and OHSU.

Instead of canceling the 2020 camp due to the pandemic’s many unknowns, determined organizers developed a virtual event on the fly that year.

“This is a resource that so many people count on, and we knew we had to try something,” said Northeast Oregon AHEC Executive Director Meredith Lair. The online-only MedQuest remained popular  and  enabled the first-time participation of new students who weren’t able to attend in-person events.

After three years of offering online experiences, Northeast Oregon AHEC is expanding MedQuest this year by organizing four separate camps, with the support of the Roundhouse Foundation.

In late March, 14 Latino/a/x and Spanish-speaking students participated in the first camp, an in-person, weeklong event held in partnership with Oregon State University’s Juntos Club at The Dalles High School. In June, another 80 students are expected to participate in this year’s three remaining camps. In addition to a virtual camp, two other events will provide in-person residential camp experiences in La Grande at Eastern Oregon University and at Crane Union High School, a boarding school located in Harney County.

Encouraging others

Stephen Koza, D.M.D. (Courtesy)
Stephen Koza, D.M.D. (Courtesy)

La Grande dentist Stephen Koza, D.M.D., has firsthand experience with the difference that health career opportunities can make. While he was a student at La Grande High School, Northeast Oregon AHEC staff connected him with an OHSU dental careers opportunity that eventually led him to graduate from the OHSU School of Dentistry in 2003. Soon after Koza opened his family dental practice, he continued to support Northeast Oregon AHEC whenever he could. This year, he’ll once again host job-shadowing MedQuest campers who will observe him in action at his clinic. He started working with MedQuest long ago: Although the program started after he had graduated , Koza served as a MedQuest camp counselor when he was an undergraduate student at Oregon State University.

“It’s important to offer high school students an extra nudge if they’re interested in any health care field,” Koza says. “It’s important that we providers share our personal experiences — like how we applied to school and how we paid for it — with interested students. When we crack open this door, it makes it that much easier for students to succeed.”

Practical education tips were much-appreciated by Garcia-Sanchez, who didn’t know anyone else who had gone to nursing school. Emboldened by many encouraging conversations with a variety of health professionals, she first completed her pre-nursing requirements at Blue Mountain Community College.

Working toward her career goals hasn’t been easy, however. During her first week as a pre-nursing student, she considered quitting after her father died. But then she remembered how her father — who wasn’t able to complete school because he had to work and support his extended family when he was young — always encouraged her and her two brothers to focus on their education. As Garcia-Sanchez completes her final term as a nursing student with a clinical rotation at a Hermiston birth center, she wants to give back.

“I want more rural students to have the same opportunities that I had through MedQuest,” Garcia-Sanchez says. “I want to be able to provide guidance to students like others guided me. It would be awesome to see the same students pursue careers in health care and come back and work in our community.”

MedQuest Health Career Exploration Camps

Oregon high school students are invited to register for one of the remaining 2023 MedQuest camps. Each camp will offer:

  • Skills and hands-on techniques
  • Shadowing working health professionals
  • Mentoring for local health professionals
  • A stethoscope for all campers

Remaining camps are:

  • June 5-9: Frontier MedQuest, in-person residential camp near Burns, $300*
  • June 18-23: Rural MedQuest, in-person residential camp in La Grande, $400*
  • June 19-22: MedQuest: online-only camp, $100*

*Scholarships available

To learn more and register, go to https://www.neoahec.org/pathway-programs/medquest/.

 

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