As we celebrate the excitement of a new academic year, we turn our spotlight onto the Health Sciences LEAP program. We spoke with Nora Wood, Ph.D. (she/her), Director and Professor of Health Sciences LEAP and Erica Rojas, M.P.A. (she/her/ella), Health Sciences LEAP Instructor to know more about this wonderful pathway program and how folks can get involved.
Tell us a little bit about yourself
Erica Rojas: I am a first-generation college graduate. My family immigrated to the United States in the late 1990s. We made a quick stop in California and then the Olympics brought us to Salt Lake City, and we have been here since. I came to the University of Utah for my undergraduate and graduated with my Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and in International Studies. I took a break and went back to get my Master's in Public Administration, took another break from school, and I'm now doing my doctoral degree in Education, Leadership, & Policy. In terms of professional life, I have been at the University of Utah for 12 years now in different administrative and student-facing capacities. Outside of school and professional life, I have a four-year-old who keeps me very busy!
Nora Wood: I have been an educator most of my career. I was an English teacher because my undergraduate degree was in English. We then started our family, and I earned my master’s degree in Political Science at the University of Utah. While raising my family, I went on to earn my Ph.D., also in Political Science, and have been teaching here for a number of years. While I was a Ph.D. candidate, I taught Political Science here at the U, at Salt Lake Community College, and at Westminster. Once I earned my Ph.D., I secured a full-time position with LEAP and have been teaching in the LEAP program for over ten years now. When Dr. Carolyn Bliss, the former Director of LEAP, retired she asked me to take over her position as Director of Health Sciences LEAP, and I have been doing that for 5 years.
What is your vision for the Health Sciences LEAP Program (HS LEAP)?
Nora Wood: In coordination with Dr. Rodriguez’s vision, this year we have doubled the number of students moving into the program. We usually had about 20 to 25 students, but this year we have 41. The students enter the program as sophomores. The class has a Community Engaged Learning designation, and this means we help the students find a volunteer opportunity with a community partner. This helps them start on the path of accumulating needed volunteer hours. We also expose them to a number of different health care professions. Spring semester we help them find a lab here on campus in which to volunteer. During their junior year, they work in this lab and are paid for that work through Health Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. They end their junior year presenting their research at the Undergraduate Research Symposium, and upon submitting an abstract of their research, they will graduate as a University of Utah Research Scholar. Their senior year consists of helping them with personal statements, graduate entrance exams, and letters of recommendation.
My vision for the program is to continue at about this level. Of course, we want them to become health care professionals, but first and foremost, we want these underserved, first generation, and marginalized students to graduate. That is our biggest goal. Now, if they choose to go on to graduate programs in health care, that is absolutely wonderful.
We also want to create a sense of community that will continue until graduation. We want them to know that there are professors and advisors on campus who really care about them, and we want them to make new and lasting friendships with fellow students.
Erica Rojas: I echo what Dr. Wood said. I envision our students seeing themselves as part of this community and see themselves belonging––that they belong in higher education, they belong in the healthcare system. We instill and foster in them the sense that they can do whatever they set their mind to, and that we will support them and provide the type of opportunities that they will need in order to be successful in whatever field they choose to follow. So that is my vision, which echoes what Dr. Wood said, that we continue to provide those learning opportunities that are going to set them onto that path for them to achieve their academic, professional, and personal goals.
What drew you to teaching in the Health Sciences LEAP program?
Erica Rojas: Part of it is that, in some ways, I am a product of the LEAP program. I was not in Health Sciences LEAP, but I was in LEAP when I was an undergraduate student. Being first-generation – not knowing what a syllabus looked like and what was the purpose of it, for example, it would have been easy for me to get lost at the U. LEAP was so transformational for me and really gave me those tools, truly, to be successful and helped me figure out higher education. So, when this opportunity came up, I immediately accepted because I deeply believe in the mission of LEAP. Health Science LEAP's mission is part of that big umbrella of helping students from marginalized backgrounds, first-generation college students, to make it through graduation and on to their careers in health science, so that was one of the draws. Additionally, the great camaraderie that I have seen in the LEAP program, working with Dr. Wood, knowing that I would have a mentor––I had been in the classroom as a student for many, many years, but as an instructor, I have had not as much experience. Dr. Wood has been really kind in showing me the ropes. And that was really important for me to feel that I was going to have a mentor to help me throughout.
Nora Wood: Several years ago, when I was finishing my Ph.D., I attended a meeting of academic advisors. At that point, I was in charge of all of the academic advisors for the College of Social and Behavioral Science, as well as the academic advisor for Political Science. At that meeting Dr. Bliss did a presentation on the LEAP Program and I thought, “This is just what I want to being doing.” LEAP professors are career-line, which means we teach a lot and to be honest, I love to teach. When people ask me why I do what I do, I always go back to Joseph Campbell, who was a great cultural philosopher, who argued that in order to live a meaningful life, we should follow our bliss. We should engage in a career that we love. Teaching is where I am meant to be. I love to see the light bulb go off in a student’s eyes. I love to make freshmen and sophomores uncomfortable so they can start to think for themselves. So, when I heard about the opportunity to teach full-time in a program here at the University of Utah that really valued teaching, with small classrooms, and building relationships with students, I thought, "This is the place for me.”
How do you feel the program benefits the students who participate?
Erica Rojas: I think it benefits them in many ways. One is that community building, that sense that they are welcome into a community. They're with peers and instructors that are going to be with them for the next two to three years. It sets them on a different path on, a different trajectory. Many of the things we do in Health Science LEAP, such as placing them with community partners to volunteer and finding a lab to do research, are experiences that many of our students have not previously imagined themselves doing. Or perhaps they did imagine themselves doing research, but do not know what that actually looks like. So, Health Science LEAP introduces them to get those tools to be successful and accumulate those experiences that then they can leverage as they go into graduate school and into the professional world. It's that building of skills, of knowledge, of experiences, of community and, also that, I hope that they have people in this institution who are rooting for them and who believe in their potential.
Nora Wood: I think Erica just touched on everything we really try to do. When someone asks me your question, I always think of the success stories of our students and some of them are just remarkable. I would like to share one with you:
I had a student who was just admitted to the College of Pharmacy here at the University of Utah. She is first-generation and comes from the Navajo reservation. When she was a sophomore, a doctor came to speak to the class. He went around the room and asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I will never forget her answer. She sat on the front row and answered, “I’m going to be a pharmacist.” He looked at her and said, “Oh, how interesting.” She replied, “Yes, I will be a pharmacist. I’m going back to the reservation, and I will be a pharmacist for my people.” She was adamant. She worked very hard and did everything right. At our closing dinner last spring, she was there with three or four of her aunts who came to support her. They were so proud of her because she was graduating from college. Now, she had not been admitted to pharmacy yet, but those women came up to me and said, “We are her aunties and we have made sure that she is graduating, and she will be a pharmacist.” Sure enough, she is in the College of Pharmacy and continues to say that she wants to be the pharmacist that her people can trust. She will tell you about a number of family members who died of COVID because they were afraid of the vaccine. They didn’t trust the white doctors and pharmacists. She knows that once she graduates, she can make a difference because she will be trusted.
That is just one success story, and I could go on and on. The program is providing opportunities for these students that they might not have otherwise.
Erica Rojas: Can I add one more thing? I hear myself saying "help" a lot, and I want to clarify that we truly believe in the students that they have a wealth of knowledge and experiences, and that they have that potential and capacity to achieve their goals. As Dr. Wood mentioned, it's not like we are the ones who are fully responsible for their graduation. Absolutely not. Instead, we're here to guide, to provide resources, to demystify is higher education, and to an extent the health field too. And so, I hope that our students feel like their voices are being elevated and that they're not being dismissed. Also, many of our students come from a schooling system where they and their lived experiences, and their cultures have been dismissed. So, when you had a doctor come to the classroom and say, "Oh, yeah, you think you're going to be a pharmacist? Sure, sure." That is very dismissive. And we're there to say, "You are going to be a pharmacist. If that is what you want to do. It's not going to be easy, but you can do it because you have that potential to do so, and we're here to guide and provide you with resources along the way."
What piece of advice would you give to students entering the Health Sciences LEAP program?
Nora Wood: My first piece of advice would be, it doesn't matter if you change your mind, and you decide you don't want to be a health care professional. Stay with the program because of those things Erica just talked about. Stay with the program, and we will do everything we can to help facilitate your graduation. A lot of times, students enter the Health Science LEAP program, and later learn, after taking a few of the prerequisites, that they really don’t want to be a doctor or a nurse. At this point Erica and I can sit down with them and say, I know and that is fine. However, if you stick with the program, we can provide a number of opportunities, like community engagement and research that will benefit you no matter the profession you choose.
Erica Rojas: Not to sound cliche but take that leap of faith and trust the process. So, it's very much in line with what Dr. Wood said, stick with the program, trust that process, trust the program that we are here to guide you and see you succeed. There are going to be times of discomfort, and that is okay because there's growth; you're going through many milestones and changes. That would be my advice, to stay with the program and trust the process.
What is your “why?"
Nora Wood: For me, it is because we have a real rich diversity of students entering into HS LEAP and continuing with the program. The reason I do what I do is I feel like I am just one little cog in trying to make this country––I'd like to say world, but I'm working on the country right now––a more equitable place for young people to grow up in. Ten years ago, I would have said, “We have a Black president, we can do these wonderful things.” Right now, however, I am fearful for the future. Just look at current race relations, marginalized people, people who don't look like we do, who don't speak like we do, who have different customs than we do, or who have a different sexual orientation. I hope I'm just one little piece of providing a kinder, more equitable place, a more equitable country for these students to grow up in.
Erica Rojas: I think too, for me, it's that I deeply believe in the power of education. I believe that education is a right, not a privilege, and everyone should have that access, and not only the access but feel that they are supported. I touched a little bit on the experiences that individuals from marginalized backgrounds have in the K-12 schooling system. It is critical for students from minoritized backgrounds to know and feel that their/our experiences and voices matter. I hope that by me being in the classroom, in front of the classroom, that in some ways also inspires students to say, "I can also become an instructor/faculty in the future. I can also go on for my Ph.D. I can also do all these amazing things that I was told that I could not accomplish." I hope they see themselves represented in the classroom - seeing someone who who looks like them and who has an accent - and they start on this journey of exploring the possibilities and pushing the envelope.
Final thoughts and things you would like people to know?
Nora Wood: We are working very hard, and Guillermo is working very hard so that upper campus, the Health Sciences campus, has a better understanding of what the HS LEAP program is. We have several PIs working with our students in their labs, and in the future, because of the expansion of the program, we are going to need even more. We are also looking for more PIs to present their research to our students. We want to be better known throughout the university.
Erica Rojas: Our Health Science LEAP students are the future of health care. They are going to be changing how things are done, they bring a wealth of knowledge and lived experiences that stems from their own communities that will transform health.
Fun Facts about Nora Wood, Ph.D.
- Favorite quote or piece of advice: “Be kind to yourself. The universe unfolds as it should.” -Unknown
- Favorite series (movie, book, tv, etc.): My favorite TV series is Call the Midwife. It's in its 12th or 13th season. It's about midwifery in England and begins right after World War II with its focus on National Health Service. It has moved all the way from right after the War II, to the late 1970s-1980s. It goes through various social changes and even tackles the thalidomide crisis. Yes, it does show birth and some difficult times, but it is very, very uplifting and shows a health care system that really does work. The National Health Service in England does work. It shows the growth and development of this program and how beneficial it is to the people. To me, it is just a very touching program.
- If you could have one superpower, what would it be? I wish I had the superpower to better understand why so many people in our country refuse to believe and value facts. I don’t understand how someone cannot believe in the science behind the COVID vaccine, climate change, or even the results of the 2020 election. I wish I could understand their fears and have a meaningful conversation with them.
- Random fun fact: I have 6 children and 10 grandchildren.
Fun Facts about Erica Rojas, M.P.A.
- Favorite quote or piece of advice: “Without leaps of imagination or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all, is a form of planning.” -Gloria Steinem
- Food or drink you couldn’t live without: Chilaquiles. It is my happy comfort food and reminds me of childhood. Not to be confused with nachos!
- Something you would like to cross off your bucket list: Graduate with my Ph.D.!
- Most recent movie you watched, and do you recommend it? The last movie I watched was Nope and yes, I do recommend it.
- What is your “get energized” or “feel good” song? “Bridge Over Troubled Water” the Aretha Franklin version
If you would like to get more information about Health Sciences LEAP and how you can get your department, division, or academic unit involved in supporting this pathway program, please reach out to Guillermo Cuevas, UHEDI Programs Manager at firstname.lastname@example.org