For UConn undergraduate Jeremy Figueroa-Ortiz, providing dental care in a largely Hispanic community is more than a career aspiration, it’s a must.
“It would just feel wrong to do anything otherwise,” says Figueroa-Ortiz, a New Britain native who is Hispanic. At the moment, “not many Hispanics can go to their dentist and speak Spanish and identify with him.”
The allied health science major, who’s minoring in both biology and health care management and insurance studies, was among more than 200 students from middle school through college who celebrated the completion of UConn Health’s summer career preparation programs on Aug. 1, at a ceremony with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
For nearly two decades, that initiative has offered a variety of enrichment programs for young people, many from populations that are underrepresented in health care fields.
Collectively known today as the Aetna Health Professions Partnership Initiative (HPPI), the program was founded in 1996 by Dr. Maria Hurley, director of UConn Health’s Health Career Opportunity Programs (HCOP), with a five-year grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. In 2005, HPPI received ongoing support through an endowment by the Aetna Foundation.
More than half of the hundreds of students who have participated in one or more of the HPPI programs have gone on to medical schools, 20 percent to dental schools, 10 percent to other health professions, and the remainder are still in college.
“HPPI introduced me to a career that I had never even thought of as an option,” says Figueroa-Ortiz, who is the first in his family to go to college. “Through various programs, they’ve exposed me to lab research, clinical research, disparities, and immersed me in an environment so that I was surrounded by success.”
Dr. Frank Torti, UConn Health executive vice president for health affairs and medical school dean, says the promise of the HPPI students fits the vision of Bioscience Connecticut and the discovery of tomorrow’s cures and treatments.
Toward that end, UConn junior Julian Rose hopes to eventually use his knowledge to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, which afflicted his late grandfather.
Rose is no stranger to the HPPI offerings. He began taking the courses in middle school and continued through high school. Eventually, he wants to enroll in a doctoral program to study applying tissue engineering to the brain to counteract neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s.
“Each and every year I come back to the HPPI programs with the expectation to be exposed to things I have never seen before and interact with people I can learn from,” Rose says. “These programs have not only helped make me a more competitive applicant in any pool through a variety of experiences, but they’ve also acted as a catalyst for my personal development.”
Glastonbury High School student Kitsha Alvarado of Hartford has been in the HPPI pipeline since seventh grade.
This summer, each day she was out the door by 7 a.m. On most days, she and her 20 classmates spent the mornings studying for SATs, ACTs, and vocabulary drills. They also worked on college search preparation; Alvarado hopes to attend UConn. In the afternoons, they worked with School of Medicine mentors and participated in events with faculty mentors.
Alvarado’s experience influenced her decision on a career. “During one of our afternoon activities, we helped fill a tooth,” she says. “It opened my eyes to think of dentistry as a career option.”
Before heading back to Johns Hopkins University for his senior year, Philip Montgomery of Hartford completed the Medical/Dental Preparatory Program, designed to ready students for both the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) and the medical school application and interview process.
For Figueroa-Ortiz, the goal is to improve his community not only by practicing dentistry, but also by getting involved in policy making.
“The biggest changes happen at the policy level,” he says. “If I can get into that area of dentistry, I know I could be a part of something monumental that could really impact underserved communities positively.”