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Outreach program aims to recruit future physicians

8th grade student at Jenkins Jr/Sr High School learning about compounding “medicine” for a sick animal with leptospirosis.

A mentorship program intended to inspire students to enter health sciences careers will enroll 155 new junior and high school students from Stevens County this year. 

The Stevens County Mentorship Program is one of several efforts organized by the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine to give back to underserved Washington communities and help children develop the interest and skills needed for a career in the health sciences. 

The college’s outreach initiatives began in 2016, prior to WSU’s first class of medical students beginning their studies. Jessica Gerdes, principal assistant within the Department of Translational Medicine and Physiology, has been involved since the beginning. 

“I saw a need to bring more than just medicine to the rural communities across Washington,” Gerdes said. “So I partnered with the Eastern Washington Area Health Education Center and began partnering with the colleges of Nursing and Pharmacy too.” 

It wasn’t until 2017 when Gerdes first visited a Stevens County high school during an outreach event that she knew the college needed to do more. 

“It was the first time I’d ever seen total poverty. I hadn’t understood what rural and underserved meant until I saw this school,” Gerdes said. She recalled a first-generation student who had wanted to become a pharmacist, only to drop out of college her first semester despite the encouragement of her teachers. 

“I realized if we wanted to change the health care in Washington, we had to actually make a difference with the youth,” Gerdes said. “We couldn’t just stop by and leave.” 

In 2018, Gerdes came up with the vision for the Stevens County Mentorship Program while participating in a hackathon hosted by the College of Medicine in which participants were challenged to identify ways in which they could shift the needle in behavioral health. 

Launched in 2019, the program serves four school districts less than 45 miles away from the Spokane Health Science Campus. It provides 7th-8th grade curriculum delivered by WSU students and faculty from all the health science specialties and a two-year 9th – 10th grade CTE health career course taught by the district teachers. The program organizers plan to one day incorporate 11th – 12th grade training opportunities as well. 

More than 330 students in Stevens County are currently enrolled in the program. 

“We want students to get work-study and internship opportunities before they even graduate so that they can build up their understanding of the careers that are in such high demand right now,” Gerdes said. “We’re hoping that some of them turn out to be doctors that work in Stevens County.”

Many Washington communities including Stevens County have complex health outcomes, and the College of Medicine hopes to be a force of positive change at the community level. Outreach programs such as the Stevens County Mentorship Program bring employment opportunities and government funding into the schools, businesses, and communities themselves.  

“It’s not just the youth that are being impacted. We support the economic growth of the community as well as the individuals involved in the program,” Gerdes said.  

Medical students have initiated three additional mentorship programs at high schools in Spokane, Tri-Cities, and Vancouver and Gerdes has no intention of stopping her work. 

“It gripped my heart what I saw in 2017. It’s a passion project for me, and I love driving into Stevens County and knowing that we’re making a difference,” she said. “It’s hard work, but we have a really good team. It’s hard to put into words what it means to put your heart into something like this.”

To learn more about Outreach and Mentorship opportunities, please contact Jessica Gerdes: stevensmentorship.medicine@wsu.edu

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