Changing the Future Face of Health Care – and the Lives of Young People

For two decades, the Health Career Opportunity Program has been inspiring people of all backgrounds to pursue the study of health care

Trailblazer Dr. Marja Hurley, founder and associate dean of the Health Career Opportunity Programs at UConn Health and graduating Class of 2021 medical student Faith Crittenden who is now at nearby Yale for pediatric residency training. She was mentored by Hurley in the Health Career Opportunity Programs (Tina Encarnacion/UConn Health photo).

On Saturday, May 8, the medical and dental schools at UConn Health are celebrating their 50th commencement milestones. Among the successful Class of 2021 graduates will be new physicians and dentists inspired by the longstanding Health Career Opportunity Programs.

For two decades, the 14 distinct Aetna Health Professions Partnership Initiative-sponsored programs have been critical in getting more young people from across Connecticut, of all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, interested in medicine and science, and to enter medical and dental school or the health professions, to be the next generation of physicians, dentists, and scientists.

“Our programs have substantially increased the number of underrepresented and first generation students attending the UConn Schools of Medicine and Dental Medicine by serving as a continuous pipeline for education opportunities for middle school, high school, and college students of diverse backgrounds across Connecticut,” says Dr. Marja Hurley, professor of medicine and orthopedics who is founding director and associate dean for the Health Career Opportunity Programs.

Impressively, of the nearly 900 youth from the state’s elementary, high school, and colleges participating in the programs so far, more than 600 have successfully gone on to enter medical school, dental school, or other health profession schools, and practice as providers in these fields.

“Some of the UConn Health Class of 2021’s bright graduating students began participating in the Aetna Health Professions Partnership Initiative Doctors Academy while they were still in high school, and some were even undergraduate Rowe Scholars at UConn. We are so proud of our students, and grateful for the support they have received through The John and Valerie Rowe Health Professions Scholars Program fund providing ongoing generous program support for our Doctors Academy, other programs, and annual events such as our Bridge to the Future Mentoring Conference,” says Hurley.

Just like the Rowes, Hurley is an inspiration to many HCOP students. While she is a pioneering bone physician-scientist, she is also the first Black woman to graduate from UConn School of Medicine, the first to become a tenured full professor, and UConn has even named her one of its most outstanding women in 100 years.

Read about some of the Class of 2021 graduating HCOP students’ success stories:

Graduating medical student Faith Crittenden ’14 (CLAS), 29, of Windsor, graduated from UConn with an undergraduate degree in chemistry and molecular and cell biology. She is headed back to Yale this summer to begin her pediatric residency training where she previously earned her health policy MPH. As I am about to enter the health care workforce as a Black pediatric resident, it has been 11 years since a Science Technology Engineering Math (STEM) seed was planted in the classroom of my Connecticut public high school,” says Crittenden, who believes the critical first step to getting more underrepresented minorities in the STEM field is to plant that seed early within the classroom, showing the students there are trailblazers just like them in these fields.

In high school, Crittenden was inspired by Hurley while attending the Doctors Academy, and again as an UConn undergrad Rowe Scholar.

“Seeing accomplished individuals who share identifiable racial, cultural, ethical, and even geographical similarities fosters an ‘If they have done it, I can do it, too’ mentality,” says Crittenden. “I continue to be inspired by Dr. Hurley’s work and accomplishments as a Black woman in medicine with an avid desire to increase the number of underrepresented students in medicine. With this representation within my own medical school, it energized me to continue on a journey to become a physician-advocate.”

Crittenden reports that HCOP is the first place she saw individuals becoming medical professionals with a background, heritage, and ethnicity similar to hers. “It was the first time I actually felt comfortable seeing myself going into this field and knowing I belong there,” says Crittenden. “I think HCOP is a special program that is essential to increasing diversity within medicine. I believe the most important benefit these programs created was a sense of community in the journey to become a physician.”

Ayesha Ejaz ’17 (CLAS), 26, of East Windsor, is graduating from UConn School of Dental Medicine. She received her UConn undergraduate degree in biological sciences with a minor in sociology.

“I had braces when I was 10 years old. I looked forward to all of my appointments and I knew then that I wanted to pursue dentistry,” says Ejaz, who was a Rowe Scholar during her undergraduate career.

“Being a Rowe Scholar was an amazing experience, I was able to attend a few dental conferences and meet other pre-dental students who are now my classmates and colleagues. Through HCOP I participated in a few summer programs. I believe that all of these experiences really kept me on track in pursuing my dream of going to dental school,” says Ejaz.

Graduating with a dual M.D./M.P.H. degree, Gian Grant-McGarvey ’14 (CAHNR), 27, is originally from Brown’s Town, St. Ann, Jamaica. She migrated to the U.S. at 5 years old and earned her UConn undergraduate degree in pathobiology with a minor in Human Rights. She will be staying at UConn to complete her family medicine residency training.

Her journey into medicine was first inspired following the death of her father because of limitations to rapid healthcare access. “I first became interested in medicine due to the death of my father. He passed away due to respiratory failure on the way to the nearest hospital which was more than an hour away from our hometown,” says Grant-McGarvey. “His passing really pushed me to become a doctor to be able to serve underserved populations.”

While attending Windsor High School, she was also additionally inspired to become a doctor by HCOP. “I had the privilege of attending the Senior Doctors Academy during my senior year of high school and went on to become a Rowe Scholar at UConn. Being a member of both the HCOP pipeline programs and a Rowe Scholar was a great experience that allowed me to meet other individuals interested in STEM careers who had similar backgrounds as myself.”

She adds: “Prior to starting the Senior Doctors Academy, I always thought that my dream of becoming a physician was a dream. As a first-generation immigrant in a single parent household, I did not have any immediate family members who were physicians or knew exactly how to achieve the requirements necessary to become a physician. However, from my first time meeting the staff at HCOP, especially Dr. Wrensford, they validated my dreams and let me know that I could become a physician; the choice was mine. HCOP consistently reinforces the thought that anything is possible regardless of your background.”

Grant-McGarvey says: “My time at UConn medical school has truly been a journey of resilience and joy. I will be taking away the lesson that UConn School of Medicine has taught me that hard work does bring true joy.”

Medical student Jahnea Williams ’16 (CLAS), 26, of Waterbury earned her UConn undergraduate degree in biological sciences and minor in psychological sciences. After graduation she is headed to Pennsylvania’s Wellspan Health York Hospital for residency training in OB/GYN.

“I became interested in medicine in high school, through family experiences with the healthcare system and volunteer opportunities. I realized that I wanted to apply my passion for science and health toward pursuing a career in medicine,” says Williams, a UConn Rowe Scholar. “It greatly contributed to my ability to network with other students and receive the support of alumni mentors as I prepared to apply to medical school.”

She believes HCOP’s mentoring has supported her throughout her medical school endeavor and will even help her in her clinical practice.

“The opportunities I have been afforded through HCOP have been invaluable in preparing me to not only become a well-rounded physician, but also to never forget the importance of uplifting the next generation of students,” says Williams. “The sense of community I have felt since my first day at UConn has demonstrated to me the importance of commitment to bettering the communities in which my patients live and work, as well as the healthcare environment as a whole to truly be able to provide the care my patients deserve.”

Future dentist Ashley Arthur ’17 (BUS), 25, of West Hartford, is graduating from UConn’s dental school. She studied marketing at UConn before deciding to become a dentist.

“Throughout my life and even now, my dad and his artisanship inspires me; I see the joy it brings him and dentistry does the same for me,” says Arthur. “I enjoy treating patients, making meaningful connections and working with my hands.”

While attending William H. Hall High School Arthur was part of the Doctors Academy at UConn Health.

“My Doctors Academy experience was fantastic! I learned a lot about healthcare and the health professions,” says Arthur. “Coming from an immigrant family and being a first generation DMD holds a special place in my heart. HCOP provided me with wonderful opportunities that has enhanced my learning experience and helped make my dream of becoming a dentist a reality.”