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

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

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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.”

When she was a high school sophomore, she said, a girl provoked her, leading to a fight. Both were suspended.

“That’s helped me know I need to hold my temper no matter what happens,” Keyla said. “In real life, things happen that we can’t control. But we can control how we react.”

Keyla was selected as speaker Thursday, Kaschke said, because she is so articulate and has engaged with classmates.

“She’s also very determined, very driven, and understands the big picture,” the coordinator said. “She listens well and asks wonderful questions of the faculty. Keyla has an even personality — rock-solid and consistent.”

Besides UNMC faculty members, three teachers from Omaha Public Schools take part in the program. The University of Nebraska at Omaha Department of Education is a partner.

Twelve science courses are offered. Kaschke said students also are taught mature vocabulary and professional phrasing so they feel comfortable conversing with and emailing physicians and professors.

In the program’s first eight years, 431 students have completed the course of study.

The first class included two who will be fourth-year medical students in the fall, on track for their M.D. degrees next spring: Josh Atwell of Westside, and Natalie Strohmyer-Wichelt of Papillion-La Vista South.

Another who completed the High School Alliance was football star Noah Fant of Omaha South. Now a tight end for the Iowa Hawkeyes, he has said he hopes to become an orthopedic surgeon.

This year’s class is 75 percent female, typical for the program.

“At least at this age,” Kaschke said, “more females are interested in a career in health care than males. Our percentages are in line with national trends.”

Before college starts, Keyla Deal has a busy summer. In Dallas at the end of June, she will attend the weeklong international conference of HOSA, the Health Occupation Students of America.

In her speech Thursday at UNMC’s Sorrell Center, she thanked educators and the Sherwood Foundation for the yearlong opportunity of the High School Alliance.

“This program was made for students who will try their hardest on each and every assignment,” she said. “It is a program that was made to inspire leaders.”

michael.kelly@owh.com, ​402-444-1132

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