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Student-Led Program Mentors the Next Generation of Health Care Leaders

June 01, 2021
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Albert Aba was among the 35 IHP students who mentored undergraduate students from colleges across the country who are interested in pursuing a health care career.

It was June 2020, and Miguel Luna was at a crossroads.

Fresh from DePaul University with an undergraduate health science degree in hand, the 23-year-old Skokie, IL native was interested in pursuing a nursing degree but still wondering whether to make it his career. His answer lay with a person he had never met, who was nearly 1,000 miles away in Boston.

Albert Aba was in the second year of the MGH Institute’s Master of Science in Nursing program. Odds are, the two never would have met but for the school’s Mentorship Program for Underrepresented Groups in Healthcare, a student initiative created to prepare and support minoritized students wishing to pursue graduate degrees in the health sciences.

While Luna was intrigued because he would learn more to help him decide on a nursing career, he still was a bit hesitant. “I wasn’t really sure I wanted to do this,” Luna said of his uncertainty about the mentorship program. “I wasn’t sure if it was the right choice for me.”

With some encouragement from his sister, occupational therapy student Alejandra Luna (who co-chairs the program with fellow OT student John Paul (JP) Bonadonna), he signed on. It was, in hindsight, a decision that would change the course of his career—and his life. 

Bonadonna and Alejandra Luna launched the virtual mentorship program in March 2020, undeterred by the coronavirus pandemic that was just beginning to shut down the school. Formed by the IHP Coalition of Occupational Therapy Advocates for Diversity Chapter and the Student Government Association, the program's intent was to pair IHP students and recent alumni with undergraduate students and recent graduates interested in pursuing a health care career. 

The first event, a health professions career day, drew interest from more than 100 college undergraduates from schools across the country with large Black, Asian, Hispanic, and Native American populations. Out of that group, 35 interested students signed up and were paired with a mentor from a pool of over 90 IHP volunteers. As part of the program’s requirements, selected students met virtually at least once every month with their IHP mentors, who were students and alumni matched according to indicated preferences in various factors like race, gender, and disability status.

Albert Aba was among those chosen to be a mentor. Aba, who previously worked as a community nurse in Las Vegas, was hoping to get something more out of nursing when he moved to Massachusetts to pursue a master’s degree at the IHP. He found what he was looking for in the school’s nurse practitioner program, but then decided he wanted even more.  “After COVID-19 hit, I wanted to give back something,” he said about the mentorship program. 

He understood the value of mentoring, since he had been mentored during his days in Las Vegas—an effort that originally led him to become a registered nurse. Hoping to have a similar influence, Aba invited Luna to come to Boston to experience nursing in a hospital. Soon, Luna accompanied Aba, who was doing a clinical rotation with Massachusetts General Hospital’s vascular access team, from ward to ward visiting patients. “He was totally blown away,” Alba said of his protégé, who spent several hours shadowing him. “You could tell that he was intrigued by everything.” 

For his part, Luna recalls the visit as “phenomenal” and “a great experience.” “I was really able to see what it meant to be a nurse,” he said, noting he plans to apply to the IHP for admittance in 2022. “I was able to see the interaction between patient and nurse and how different areas of the hospital worked."

Langston Carter-Price, a junior at Dillard University in New Orleans who is majoring in public health with a minor in business administration, was paired with Doctor of Physical Therapy student Damian Johnson. “I originally had 30 graduate schools to consider, so Damian helped me to narrow the list,” said Carter-Price, who noted the IHP would be among the DPT programs to which he applies after he graduates in 2022. “He also helped me with doing mock interviews and critiquing my performance, which was great.”

The 35 mentees-were led over the past year through four dyads: Career Choice, School Choice, Application Prep, and Interview Prep. Those who have completed a final survey said they now intend to pursue careers in health care. “We worked hard to get the mentorship program off the ground in the midst of a pandemic, so the positive feedback received thus far from both mentees and mentors have made the experience undeniably worth it and highlighted the need for this type of programming,” said Bonadonna, adding that while he hopes other mentees like Luna eventually will apply to the IHP, it is not the program’s primary intent. 

The successful first year culminated with a virtual Mentorship Award Ceremony in April, at which Aba received the inaugural Outstanding Mentor Award. He graduated from the nurse practitioner program this spring.

With a second mentoring session set to begin in September, the hope is for the program to become a regular part of the IHP offerings and perhaps even expand to other schools and universities. “It's nice to know we are not only supporting marginalized students with access to mentorship and resources but we’re working to address an existing lack of diversity within the health care fields in the process,” said Alejandra Luna. And that, she added, made it all worthwhile.