Dream big, Little One

StudentSpeak is pleased to publish this guest post by Jessica Petrovich, MS2. Jess participated in one of OHSU’s Science Education programs helping inspire and support underrepresented students in the sciences.

Dream Big, Little One. It is scrawled in my mother’s handwriting on a scrap of paper. Underneath it she taped a small photo of me as a toddler, staring hopefully at some unidentifiable object in the background. Well aware of the risk of exposing my inner cheese-ball, I have to admit that this scrap of paper has been on my fridge for the last six years. Sometimes, when I feel myself melting into a puddle of hopelessness and self-doubt twelve hours before a big exam (that’s kinda my thing), I stare at it until I am convinced that everything will be okay. Everything will be okay. Everything will be okay.

Truthfully, I have experienced nothing but support and enthusiasm throughout my education. There are plenty of kids who are not as fortunate. In my “gap years” between college and medical school, I taught elementary school for AmeriCorps. Many of my students came from families that were struggling to learn English. Often, when parents were balancing two jobs just to put dinner on the table, academic resources and support were compromised.

It worried me to hear that students as young as six didn’t like science and that “math was stupid and just too hard.” By the first grade, they had already resigned to the idea that they just weren’t cut out for those subjects. I spent the next two years trying to change their minds. Entering medical school last year, I wasn’t sure how I would incorporate my enthusiasm for mentoring kids, but then I found a program called On Track OHSU.

As most people would guess, medical school leaves precious little time for extracurricular activities and deciding where to focus your energy is difficult at a school with seemingly endless opportunities. At my first On Track meeting, the program quickly rose to the top of my triage list. The program director, Katie Lenahan (a former teacher herself), expressed her overarching goal for the program; to empower students to think of themselves as scientists and future health care professionals. To convince them, no matter their background, no matter their status, and no matter how stupid they may have once found math, they can make a life in science and medicine.

The afternoons that I spent last year with the seniors at Woodburn High School were worth every minute of my time. At our first visit, we explored different medical professions and their roles within the healthcare system. We came as a team of future dentists, doctors, nurses and researchers so that we could share our personal stories and answer their questions specific to our programs. At our next visit, we talked with the seniors about life after high school, how to manage time in college and concerns moving forward. There are so many barriers to becoming a medical professional; it’s expensive, it takes a lot of time, there are challenging prerequisites and tests, and it’s easy to feel like you just aren’t cut out for it. Through On Track, I hope to be one piece of a solid network for these students – both by answering logistical questions about a career in medicine and simply convincing them that, like me, they can be whatever they want to be.

You’ll hear me talk about the value of the On Track program for the students, but I feel that the benefit was as much my own. As a pediatrician, it will be a joy to help my patients grow to become the people they want to be; physically, psychologically and socially. On Track lets me experience a piece of that now. Memorizing lists of cytokines has a tendency to make me lose sight of what I am doing in medical school, but afternoons with On Track bring me back to a place where I can see the forest. For a few afternoons a year, I set my flashcards and trepidations aside and spend time doing what I love – building up kids so that they can dream big.