News from Penn Today, University of Pennsylvania

Support and inspiration for undergrads pursuing careers in health care

Last spring, when the pandemic prompted Penn’s courses to go virtual, Alejandra Bahena, now a rising senior, faced a range of challenges.

“Being a first-generation, low-income student, I had to figure out where I would be living, how I would be learning,” says Bahena, who is from Kissimmee, Florida, but was born and spent her first 12 years in Mexico. “I struggled academically that semester and started questioning my potential as a future doctor.”

The biochemistry major and French minor didn’t lack a support network. She reached out to contacts in Penn’s Johnson Scholars Program, of which she is a part, as well as to Career Services and the Weingarten Learning Resources Center

“Just talking to them really inspired me to stay with this path and stay resilient, regardless of the challenges,” she says.

It struck Bahena, however, that she was far from the only student feeling this way, especially students on the competitive pre-med track. She was particularly concerned about fellow students from backgrounds underrepresented in medicine and other health fields.

What emerged from that difficult period is an initiative that stands to inspire many others. Working with her longtime friend Alexia Childress, a rising senior at Arizona State University, and a growing team, Bahena envisioned and created a virtual event in the summer of 2020 that brought together more than 1,000 students from around the United States and 10 other countries to learn about careers in health care, strategies for applying for advanced degrees, and fostering self-confidence and resilience throughout the journey.

And they’re about to do it again.

From Aug. 4 to 6, the National Pre-Health Conference (NHPC) will offer programming on various career paths in health care, applying to graduate school, and special topics from expert guest speakers. The event, free and online, aims to welcome as many people into medical and health care fields as possible, while giving them the tools they need to continue on a challenging academic and professional path.

“There are a lot of perceived barriers to careers in fields like medicine and dentistry,” Bahena says. “Particularly for students from underrepresented and low-income backgrounds, we want to make these resources as accessible as possible to avoid what a lot of people refer to as the ‘leaky pipeline’ of students as they progress from high school to college to professional school.”

Since the first iteration of the conference last year, Bahena and her peers have been keeping the NHPC network they established going, sending out a monthly newsletter and engaging their audience with social media posts and guest speakers on Instagram Live. They also wanted to revisit the conference, ideally making it an annual event.

While last year’s conference focused solely on medical careers, Bahena and her peers wanted to make this year’s offering broader. So the first day of this year’s event will feature talks from guest speakers in fields as diverse as public health, psychiatry, rehabilitation, occupational therapy, and nursing. 

The second day will include talks on the admissions process to medical and other health care schools, with sessions on preparing for the interview, crafting a personal statement, preparing for the MCATs, and more. Participants will be able to work in small breakout groups on a “case study,” collaborating to understand, diagnose, and treat a hypothetical medical problem.

“The groups will go over how to look at a patient case and the different aspects that can play into arriving at a diagnosis,” Bahena says. “They will look at lab information, brain scans, radiology. It’s emphasizing a theme of the conference, which is unity in health care, showing how different fields come together.”

On the third and final day, guests will make presentations on subjects including mindfulness, advocacy, branding, and scientific communication.

In addition, conference sponsors will offer support and resources, and a research expo will allow students who have participated in scientific and health-related research to share their work.

For Bahena, who plans to take a gap year to pursue research after graduating from Penn and before attending medical school, an overarching goal is to create a welcoming, supportive community.

“Sometimes pre-health schools can be a little bit competitive or even cutthroat,” Bahena says. “But we want to emphasize that we’ll all need to collaborate as we go into these professions. So we want to start building that friendly, nonjudgmental community now.”