Gather a panel of successful, healthcare professionals to share how they got where they are today, put them in front of high school students aspiring to similar careers, and something wonderful happens. Synergy.
Six women – three nurses, a doctor, a medical interpreter and a radiographer – captured the attention of nearly 30 freshmen and sophomores during a “Diverse Women in Healthcare” presentation sponsored by Mount Wachusett Community College’s new Project Healthcare program. The speakers were equally enthused to share words of encouragement and advice to a group of young women, and a handful of young men, as they begin to discern their own career interests.
The March 29 event for Leominster High School and Leominster Center for Technical Innovation Education students capped off Women’s History Month by showcasing the varied academic, professional and personal paths each woman followed, whether locally or globally.
Panelists included Dr. Maria Del Carmen Al-Homsi, an internal medicine doctor at UMass Medical Group; Cecilia Phelan Stiles, senior manager of HR Communication Systems for Cape Cod Healthcare and president of the Forum on the Coordination of Interpreter Services, a statewide organization; Leominster High and MWCC alumna Elizabeth Warpula, a radiographer at Massachusetts General Hospital; Leominster High alumna and pediatric nurse ZaShanah Copeland, a school nurse at Seven Hills Charter Public School in Worcester; Geri Tusalem, senior director of perioperative services at HealthAlliance Hospital; and Mary Fortunato-Habib, Chief Nursing Officer at UMass Memorial HealthAlliance Hospital.
Over the course of an hour, each woman shared what inspired them to enter the healthcare field and the challenges and triumphs they encountered along the way.
Copeland, for instance, was drawn to nursing while in middle school after watching nurses care for her mother following a traumatic accident. As a child, Fortunato-Habib dreamed of becoming an astronaut, until she realized the skills she developed while taking care of younger cousins were pointing toward a career as an RN.
Warpula confessed she had “no intention of going to college after graduating high school. “And now I work at one of the best hospitals in the country.” Dr Del Carmen Al-Homsi and Phelan-Stiles spoke of the challenge of overcoming language barriers, only to find their fluency in multiple languages a major advantage in their careers.
“Be open to your circumstances because you never know where you will land,” Copeland advised. “Finish what you start and keep your eyes on your goal.”
The new Project Healthcare program aims to help students do just that. Last fall, MWCC was awarded a five-year, $2.25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health to create the program in partnership with the Fitchburg and Leominster school districts.
The program aligns with federal initiatives to reduce racial and ethnic health disparities while providing a high school-to-college pipeline for students who plan to enter the healthcare field.
Over the next five years, 120 students will receive academic counseling, coaching, field trips, guest lectures and dual enrollment college courses.
Lea Ann Scales, MWCC Vice President of External Affairs, Communications and K-12 Partnerships, and program Director Melissa Bourque Silva, welcomed the students and role models to the presentation, held at Leominster High School.
Students, like aspiring pediatric oncologist Hellen Muma, said they found the event “inspiring” and “amazing.” Elizabeth O’Neil, a sophomore in the health occupations program, felt encouraged by the forum’s theme of encouraging students to forge their own paths one step at a time.
“I thought it was really great because I’m questioning what I want to do in healthcare. It’s comforting to know that I’m going to find what I want to do and help people in the future.”
Bourque-Silva encouraged the students to take advantage of opportunities as they appear. “Time and time again, we all think it’s a straight line from A to B. Everyone has their own path. I hope you all realize what power and promise you have to make a difference in the world, and I also hope you leave here feeling empowered and confident in yourselves, who you are, and who you can become.”