Felicia Hayes, 17, giggled when she talked about how she got interested in becoming a surgeon.
"I was dissecting frogs at school one day, and I really liked it," said Felicia, whose smile revealed a mouth full of braces.
After a round of laughter shared with a few classmates, Felicia--a cheerleader and student body president at John Glenn High School in Norwalk--talked about the main reason why she is determined to be the first person in her family to finish college.
"I have seen my parents struggle all their lives to make a living," Felicia said as the laughter died down. "I know what struggle is all about and I want something better for myself. I want to help others, and now I have the chance to put back what they gave me."
Carlos Sanchez, 17, who also attends John Glenn, listened quietly and after a long silence said: "I knew I wanted to be a pediatrician when my family and I went to Mexico to visit relatives. I saw all these sick children who were dying because there were no doctors to help them. I guess that's what did it for me."
Work Experience in Health
Felicia and Carlos could have been speaking for many of the 20 Southeast area high school students who are participating in a Health Professions Work Experience Program for minority and low-income families at the University of California, Irvine.
The high school students from Cerritos, Downey, Norwalk, Bellflower, Hawaiian Gardens and Lakewood are spending three weeks this summer living in dormitories on the campus with 16 other minority and low-income high school students from Los Angeles and Orange counties. The students are taking math and science classes to prepare for careers in the health professions.
Program in Second Year
This is the second year of the summer program, which is sponsored by the Orange County/Long Beach Area Health Education Center, a nonprofit group based at Irvine.
Unlike the other students, the Southeast contingent has been placed in paying summer jobs at various health clinics for nine weeks, thanks to a $38,000 grant from the Southeast Los Angeles County Service Delivery Area program.
In 1983, the cities of Cerritos, Downey, Norwalk, Bellflower, Hawaiian Gardens and Lakewood formed the area program, a federally funded program that pays for job-training programs for minority and low-income youths and adults.
Many of the Southeast area students, like Felicia, are placed in jobs at Norwalk Community Hospital. Others are placed at various health centers like Artesia Community Hospital, Bellflower Health Center and Planned Parenthood of Lakewood. The students are paid $3.35 an hour and work 20 hours a week answering phones, filing papers and running errands. They work at their jobs for 4 1/2 weeks before their stay at UCI and for 4 1/2 weeks afterward.
For a few of the students, these are their first jobs, and for most of the students the program provides them with the chance to be the first in their families to go to college.
"A lot of these kids are afraid to go to a university because no one in their family has gone to school," said Anna Diaz, director of the Health Education Center. "Hopefully, being on the campus will show them they have nothing to be afraid of and that becoming a doctor is something within their reach."
But Nati Garcia's mother was a little skeptical at first.
Wants to Be a Pharmacist
Nati, 17, a senior at John Glenn, says he wants to become a pharmacist but he almost had to pass up the chance to participate in the program because his mother needed him to work at his family's T-shirt business in Whittier.
"She figured that three weeks is a long time to not be working, but she knows I had to come to this program so I could have a better future," Nati said. "I guess she just wants me to have a better life than she had."
Nati said his mother, Santos Garcia, relies on him and his five brothers and sisters to work at the shop after school and on weekends.
Things have been tough for Garcia, who is a single mother, but she says she knows Nati and his sister, who attends Cerritos College, will make better lives for themselves.
Proud as Punch
"I am real proud of Nati," said Garcia, who came to the United States from Mexico 23 years ago. "I could have used him to work in the store this summer, but I want him to make something out of his life."
Harvey Williams, a counselor at UCI's College of Medicine, says many parents who have not attended school would like their children to stay home and work because of economic necessity.
"The parents I've talked to see institutions of higher learning as overwhelming so not only do they not know how it works but they rarely see the payoff of a degree when they need to put food on the table," Williams said.