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New IU Health program offers students a chance at health careers

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Any animals living around 38th Street and North Irvington Avenue on Indianapolis’ east side are well-fed if Azaria Watkins has anything to say about it.

“I was attracted to animals and I fed the squirrels outside,” the 15-year-old said about her first memories of giving back in third grade. Now, she has bigger plans. “I really want a job and I really want to make it.” 

The Crispus Attucks High School freshman hopes to turn her affinity for four-legged neighbors into a profession. She’s set on being the first veterinarian in her family.

And a new partnership at her school will help her get that chance.

Indianapolis Public Schools is partnering with Indiana University Health to launch a health care-focused fellowship at Attucks. The pilot program is an expansion of the district’s health sciences pathway. 

Upon graduation, students who complete the fellowship will receive a job offer from IU Health, along with tuition assistance to complete a related degree. They’re likely to land in patient-centered jobs such as a medical assistant or patient care assistant.

Principal Lauren Franklin said many Attucks students have a heavy burden — working to get an education and to contribute to family income.

The school has about 1,100 students, and Franklin estimates that 60% to 70% hold jobs. She said the coronavirus crisis highlights the need to make sure some of those students are in the next generation of health care providers as well.

“Anytime somebody can come along and help to alleviate some of those burdens, then that‘s a tremendous help to our students,” Franklin said. “That‘s one less thing that they have to figure out.”

Program organizers say the fellowship will provide a clear pathway for students to advance into a professional career — and help provide more diverse workers at IU Health. 

There’s a booming demand for health care professionals. The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that five of the nation’s 20 fastest growing industries over the next decade will be in health care and social assistance, the fastest growing major sector of the economy. Demand for support by aging Baby Boomers and people who have chronic conditions will drive the projected growth, the agency reports.

Jamal Smith, director of government affairs and strategic partnerships for IU Health, has been working on the partnership for the past year. He said it made sense to pick Attucks, considering the school sits in IU Health’s backyard downtown, in what Franklin calls a “community of color.” 

“If we turn on our sprinkler system, we‘re going to water their grass as well,” he said. “How do we think of ways we invest in the community in an impactful, transformational way that addresses all of the social impediments that have been highlighted by the communities and neighborhoods surrounding the hospital.”

Every day, families around Attucks face barriers such as living in a food desert or searching for affordable housing, Smith said. Opened in 1927 as the first all-Black high school in Indianapolis, Attucks still serves a mostly Black student body.

“As you leave the hospital, there‘s roughly a 13-year life expectancy [disparity] depending on the zip code you reside in,” he said. “So, the further you travel north when you leave the hospital, the longer you‘re expected to live, which is bananas to me.”

Smith said the IU Health-Attucks partnership will help remove another barrier: access to advanced education. It also will improve the overall economic landscape of Indiana.

Organizers said the fellowship will be offered to freshmen at Attucks; they can apply during the second semester of the 2020-2021 school year. 

Franklin welcomes the opportunity to help her students. “For someone to say, ‘Hey, we love to give you a job and to help to improve that quality of life,’ that‘s a blessing for so many of our kids.”

Watkins plans to apply for the program during her sophomore year, in hopes of moving one step closer to serving the animals she’s eager to heal. The offer of tuition assistance is her biggest incentive.

“I feel good about [the program] because I don‘t have to worry about [bills] in the future,” she said. “I can just maintain my good grades and maintain my GPA and not worry about not having a job and not having money. So I can get my own house and then help other people in need.”

This story was reported as part of a partnership between WFYI, Side Effects Public Media and the Indianapolis Recorder.

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