She’s working on her bachelor’s degree, thanks to a free education program from UCHealth

UCHealth is a Colorado employer offering free education opportunities for its employees. These community benefits strengthen individuals, families and all of us.
Feb. 21, 2023
A photo of Zujei Roman, medical assistant at UCHealth, a Colorado employer offering free education opportunities for their employees.
Zujei Roman is a medical assistant at UCHealth, a Colorado employer offering free education opportunities for their employees. Photo: UCHealth.

Zujei Roman is always on the go.

By day, she is a medical assistant at UCHealth, working in the lung nodule and thoracic clinic at Memorial Hospital Central.

She’s done a multitude of tasks in her current job and in a previous role as a medical assistant in vascular surgery. She checks blood pressure and pulse for patients, reviews their health history and confirms their allergies and whether they are still current on medications. She also helps physicians by removing sutures, staples and bandages for patients.

After work, she’s a full-time wife and mom to three children, ages 16, 14 and 8. Her family is extremely supportive; her husband and older kids are usually in the kitchen making dinner by the time she gets home. She enjoys a meal with them, then goes to college at night.

Spanish is her first language

A native of Puerto Rico, Roman is working to earn a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science thanks to a free education program called the Ascend Career Program, which is offered to UCHealth employees.

Spanish is her first language, though she is fluent in English. She admits that the language barrier can be a struggle for her. Sometimes, she writes her college lessons in Spanish to better understand the concepts, and therefore, the lessons may take her a little longer to complete.

Roman knows that earning a bachelor’s degree will help her family and her community. She’ll likely earn more money with a degree, though she is not necessarily motivated by a bigger paycheck.

She’s motivated by what she is modeling for her kids.

“The bachelors will just open up doors for me in general, and financially, it will be a big help for us. The biggest thing for me is that my kids see me pushing forward. Even though I may struggle with the language, they see me going forward.

“I’m the first one in my family to go to college. And I’m going to be the first one to get a bachelor’s degree. So that is something that I am teaching them, to be persistent and never give up on their goals. I think that is more important than the financial aspect. Yes, that’s great, but I am showing my kids to be determined.’’

Associate’s degree in applied science

Roman, who has an associate’s degree in applied science, enrolled in the Ascend program in August, and she takes classes from Bellevue University. UCHealth leaders have pledged to invest $50 million over the next four years to pay for educational programs for employees. Ascend is a partnership with Guild Education, a career opportunity company that partners with employers to help employees earn certificates and new degrees.

UCHealth is the first hospital system in Colorado to launch a program with Guild. While the program helps employees, it also provides significant community benefits in helping to educate people to fill health care jobs at a time when there is a nationwide shortage of physicians, advanced practice providers, nurses and other health care professionals.

A photo of Zujei Roman, medical assistant at UCHealth, a Colorado employer offering free education opportunities for their employees.
Zujei Roman hopes to use her additional education to help break down mental health barriers in Hispanic communities in Colorado. Photo: UCHealth.

Employees who work at least half-time for UCHealth qualify for Ascend and are eligible to apply for the program starting on their first day of work.

Earning a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science, Roman said, will help her community.

“I will speak for myself, when it comes to my culture, people don’t reach out about their mental health. That’s considered being weak. I see that, and I believe we need more Spanish-speaking counselors to help people understand and bring knowledge about mental health to the Hispanic population,’’ Roman said.

She said she believes that in Hispanic communities (and others), when it comes to mental health, “we just don’t talk about it. We just keep moving forward, pretend everything is OK, and it is not healthy. It is something that I have learned in my own life and in my relationship with my husband. As a family, we are able talk about our feelings, our daily struggles and ask for help when need to without feeling ashamed or weak.’’

UCHealth investing in behavioral health

She believes having a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science will open up career opportunities for her at UCHealth. The health system announced in 2019 that it would invest $100 million over five years to provide behavioral health care in primary care offices, expand access to virtual behavioral health appointments, and add new inpatient beds for behavioral health patients at University of Colorado Hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus.

Roman said a co-worker and her husband strongly encouraged her to pursue a bachelor’s degree.

“Honestly, with having three kids and working, I just didn’t think I would have the time to deal with everything. I thought it was going to be very stressful, and I didn’t want the stress. So it took me like six months to make a decision,’’ she said.

Her co-worker kept pressing.

“She said, ‘look at it,’ so I took a look to see what they offered. I loved the classes for behavioral health. They are very interesting to me,’’ said Roman, who is part of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee for UCHealth’s southern region.

She has taken four of the 13 classes she needs to pass to earn the degree. Each class is six weeks long. She spends many evenings taking the online courses.

“My husband is pretty great, and he encouraged me to go back to school. He’s like, ‘they’re giving you this opportunity and not everyone has this available to them. You don’t have to pay for it.’ So I don’t have to worry about it” He’s like, ‘you should do it and I will support you.’’’

She said she is encouraging other employees to participate in the Ascend program.

“If I’m doing it, and I have three kids and a full-time job and the language barrier, anybody can do it,’’ she said. “I think it’s great because I don’t have to worry about how I have to pay this off and I can continue to work hard to earn my degree.’’

About the author

Erin Emery is editor of UCHealth Today, a hub for medical news, inspiring patient stories and tips for healthy living. Erin spent years as a reporter for The Denver Post, Colorado Springs Gazette and Colorado Springs Sun. She was part of a team of Denver Post reporters who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting.

Erin joined UCHealth in 2008, and she is awed by the strength of patients and their stories.