As the students stepped off their buses, they were introduced to a new world that was at their disposal. Most didn’t know it was accessible. Some didn’t even know it existed.

The place, USC’s Health Sciences Campus, is right in their backyard, yet the 700 middle school and high school students from the Boyle Heights and Lincoln Heights neighborhoods were unaware they could tap into the vast resources it offered.

But when they arrived at HSC for the STEM Day of Discovery event, Glenn Ault, MD, instantly made them feel at home. “Welcome to our campus,” said the associate dean for clinical administration at Keck School of Medicine of USC. “We want you to feel like this belongs to you.”

“The Health Sciences Campus is in your community,” added Dulce Acosta, program manager for USC Civic Engagement. “Take advantage of the green space, take advantage of the libraries.”

The STEM Day of Discovery on Oct. 4 was a collaborative effort between USC Civic Engagement and the Keck School of Medicine. Eleven local middle school and high schools with dedicated STEM programs were invited to the event, bringing hundreds of students to the campus. These students had previously displayed a keen interest in STEM education but often lacked the tools to advance in their studies. At STEM Day, they learned the options available to them — including a career as a physician.


At STEM Day, students encouraged to aim high

Raquel Arias, MD, MPH, associate dean of education affairs at the Keck School, encouraged the teens to aim high and pursue a medical career. “I don’t know how many of you want to be doctors, but I want every single one of you to become one,” she said.

She shared her story of coming from Mexico in 1978. Despite being the only Latina female in her class, she found common ground with her peers: “When I got here, I found a community that embraced me, even though I was alone.” Arias also noted that, of the 8,000 medical school applications she received, only five were from the local area.

“I need someone who represents the people that we serve,” Arias said. “There is someone here who is on your side, who wants you and who is going to make sure you have a community in medical school.”

Acosta, who organized the event, spoke about the importance of building networks to expose students to careers in the medical field.

“There are a lot of schools that have a STEM focus but don’t have enough resources or access to a network of medical professionals,” she said. “Careers in health care offer vast opportunities, and if we can expose the local community — especially students — to these pathways, it can be life-changing.”

That notion was reinforced by Ault. “One of you in the audience can find the cure for cancer,” he said. “We are counting on you. Whether it’s medicine, nursing or nurse practitioner, there are so many different opportunities in health care.”

— Saul Garcia