SPOKANE – This year marks the 10th anniversary of Project H.O.P.E. (Health Occupations Preparation Experience), an annual summer internship program for high school students coordinated by Washington’s two Area Health Education Centers in partnership with the Washington State Office of Community and Rural Health.
Unfortunately, this is also the year the program saw its funding cut amid statewide budget upheaval, leaving the program’s future uncertain.
Initiated in 2001, Project H.O.P.E. was developed to encourage ethnically diverse students living in rural, underserved areas of the state to explore health careers. For the students, the program offers an opportunity to ask questions, observe procedures and learn about the opportunities available in the health sciences and professions.
For health care facilities, participation in the program is one way to attract potential future health professionals from within the local community.
“If the program were forced to close, we’d lose a lot of momentum around trying to feed the shortage of health care workers in rural areas,” she said. “It would be very sad.” – Bonnie Wagner, WSU Spokane
I“We’ve had several students that were actually hired within their host facilities afterwards,” said Bonnie Wagner, who coordinates the program for the Area Health Education Center of Eastern Washington (AHEC) at Washington State University Spokane. Many students have enrolled in health sciences programs following their Project H.O.P.E. experience. One student turned out to be such a good match with her host facility that they decided to pay for her nursing education, in addition to hiring her, she said.
During their six-week internships, students spend 20 hours a week rotating through several clinical and diagnostic settings in hospitals, community health centers, clinics, and dental practices in their local communities. More than 200 eastern Washington students have participated in the program since its inception. This year, 25 high school juniors and seniors from across eastern Washington started their rotations in late June, spread out across communities such as Brewster, Davenport, Kennewick, Moses Lake, Othello, and Republic. They were selected from an applicant pool of 165 students as part of a highly competitive process.
Project H.O.P.E. interns earn a stipend equivalent to minimum wage, for which the funding has come from the Washington Higher Education Coordinating Board. This funding has now been cut, and AHEC staff are actively pursuing funding opportunities to keep the program running, which according to Wagner costs about $55,000 a year.
“If the program were forced to close, we’d lose a lot of momentum around trying to feed the shortage of health care workers in rural areas,” she said. “It would be very sad.”