Omaha World Herald: UNMC program readies teens for health jobs and rewards those who ‘try their hardest’

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By Michael Kelly / World-Herald Columnist

Once suspended from her high school for fighting, a 17-year-old girl talked eagerly about the future Thursday at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

As the student speaker on recognition day for UNMC’s High School Alliance — a distinctive program to encourage health-care careers — Keyla Deal said she’s a bit nervous to move on.

“But I am so happy,” she told attendees, “and excited for the next chapter of my life.”

The event closed a chapter for 69 high schoolers from 15 public school districts, who have attended classes from 1 to 3 p.m. daily at the med center since August.

Heidi Kaschke, the coordinator, said UNMC knows of no other program like it. One in Texas enrolls students planning to become medical doctors, but the Omaha classes seek a broader array.

Students needn’t have posted a straight-A record in high school courses, but must carry at least a B average in algebra, biology and chemistry. It’s still competitive to get in, and more than 200 annually apply.

The alliance, which looks for students eager to learn and to excel, is funded by Susie Buffett’s Sherwood Foundation. More than a third come from low-income families, qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches at their schools.

They attend their regular high schools in the morning and UNMC in the afternoon.

Raised by single mom Shaletha Thomas-Johnson, Keyla graduates June 3 from Council Bluffs Thomas Jefferson. She will enroll in August at the College of St. Mary with plans to become a physician’s assistant. The UNMC classes, she said, were great preparation.

The first semester, she took classes in infectious disease and pathology; this semester, genetics and anatomy. Courses were tough, but she found she could keep up.“One of the reasons I love this program,” she said in an interview, “is that they don’t expect everybody to be the next Albert Einstein. It’s not just about academics. It’s also helped me grow into a better person.”

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