New London middle school students get an early jump on potential health care jobs

Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School students Maria Ramirez, Ivanna Reyes and Lisbeth Mena, pictured from left to right, react as 'Jane the Virgin' star Andrea Navedo appears unexpectedly in a session at the Latinas & Power Symposium in Hartford on Thursday, May 11, 2016. (Lindsay Boyle/The Day)
Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School students Maria Ramirez, Ivanna Reyes and Lisbeth Mena, pictured from left to right, react as "Jane the Virgin" star Andrea Navedo appears unexpectedly in a session at the Latinas & Power Symposium in Hartford on Thursday, May 11, 2016. (Lindsay Boyle/The Day)

New London — In her time as a professor of nursing at Three Rivers Community College, MaryAnn Perez-Brescia has noticed something striking.

"Way too many times, there are just not enough students of color," she said, noting that the trend goes on to play itself out in the industry.

In Connecticut, while 15 percent of the population is Hispanic, Hispanics represent only 2.6 percent of the nursing workforce.

For blacks, those statistics are 11.2 percent and 3.5 percent, respectively.

A problem-solver, Perez-Brescia reached out to Tedman Martinez, a bilingual school counselor at the diverse Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School, and asked if he'd be interested in forming a partnership.

Martinez said he jumped at the chance.

Since the beginning of this school year, 11 Bennie Dover Jackson students have taken advantage of opportunities not typically offered at middle schools, traveling to Three Rivers to take part in nursing simulation labs and even getting certified to perform CPR.

The whole idea, Perez-Brescia said, is to foster an early preparedness for college.

"What happens a lot is we don't talk about college until a kid is in junior or senior year," she said. "We need to reach them a little earlier."

Nationally, Hispanic students, at 12 percent, are more than twice as likely to drop out of high school than their white counterparts.

"I truly believe that you have to put kids in a place where they can look at themselves as a part of something even before they are," Martinez said, using college as an example.

"If they mingle with (college) students, find out what their day looks like and spend some time with them, over time they'll begin to understand the values behind the students' behaviors," he said.

"They'll think, 'I can do that,'" Martinez continued. "When college is a word in the far distance, it doesn't mean anything unless you're actually there."

On Thursday, Perez-Brescia sponsored six of the students to go to the Latinas & Power Symposium in Hartford, where they heard strategies for success from accomplished Latina women and participated in sessions geared toward high school students.

Between the sessions, which covered everything from workplace harassment to how to ace an interview, the girls chatted with women running booths at the expo and took a minute to giddily pose with Andrea Navedo, a star in the comedy TV show "Jane the Virgin" and the symposium's keynote speaker.

"I'm hoping they can find their inner voices and can find some confidence in being around other women and hearing their stories, hearing their struggles and realizing they're not alone," Perez-Brescia said of why she brought the girls to the symposium.

"I'm hoping they realize that there are opportunities out there for them and they shouldn't let anything get in the way," she said.

For Desiree Johnson, an eighth-grader who said she'll stick it out for "as long as it takes" to become a surgeon, the event was just another aspect of a "fun" program that's allowed her to get a look at what that could mean.

Being in the group, Johnson said, "has helped me because they bring me to different places where I can learn how to become a doctor."

As for why she's interested in the medical field, Johnson said simply that she wants to help people who get sick — including her mother, if ever that happens in the future.

Johnson plans to attend the Science and Technology Magnet High School of Southeastern Connecticut next year.

Over the course of the year, Martinez and Perez-Brescia said, the 11 girls and boys have improved more than just their medical knowledge, whether by asking questions rather than just reacting or by becoming more comfortable with speaking English, a second language for several of them.

Martinez said he hopes to see the program expand, not only in terms of the number of students involved, but also in terms of the disciplines covered.

"The earlier you get kids thinking about their future, the better it is," he said.

l.boyle@theday.com

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