Young Sydney Gruber has always wanted to be a surgeon. But did she have what it takes to do this highly skilled and demanding job? After spending 50 hours observing everything from hernia operations to the removal of a brain tumor, her answer is a resounding “yes.”
Learning Link students have the opportunity to immerse themselves in a hospital setting, an experience that helps them determine whether to pursue a career in health care.
Gruber, 18, just finished the Learning Link Career Observation Program at Memorial Hospital and it only cemented her career plan. It also focused her field of study: She wants to be a fetal neurosurgeon.
“That’s my goal,” said the recent high school graduate who leaves Colorado Springs for George Washington University in the fall.
Her experience is not an unusual one for students attending the Learning Link program, said Bonnie Nixon, office supervisor for Volunteer Services at Memorial Hospital.
“Most of the students have a very good experience,” she said.
The program has been going for 17 years and is “very successful,” with more applicants than openings each year, Nixon added
Originally it was for high school juniors and seniors but because there was so much interest, the hospital had to limit it to seniors only. This is the first year students had to be 18 years old to enroll. Now, the program also accepts college students of any age. And though it’s preferred that students be enrolled in school when they apply, the program will take recent graduates who are exploring career options.
Learning Link sessions are offered in the fall and spring semesters and during the summer.
But more than meeting those basic requirements, “They need to have a genuine interest in going into health care as a career,” Nixon said.
With 60 applications for only 20 openings, the selection process can be tough. Applicants are judged on a points system that includes their references and a personal interview.
“When we interview them, they have to be very proactive when they are engaging with staff,” Nixon said. “They have to have good communication skills – if they are very quiet and reserved, they don’t get as much out of it. The more interested they appear, the more the staff will engage with them. If they have a unique story as to what brought them here that also can make them more likely to be chosen,” she added. “A personal connection helps.”
Often, the hospital’s junior volunteers apply and they have an edge: “They are already working at the hospital, so that gives them an advantage,” Nixon said.
Students who are accepted get about 50 hours of observation time in different areas of the hospital. They view surgeries, births, colonoscopies, emergency department traumas, radiology and more.
The program “helps them make more informed decisions about what direction they want to take in their careers going forward,” Nixon said. “And even if they decide not to go into health care, that’s still a good thing.
“Sometimes they come in thinking they want to go into health care and they find out that’s not what they want to do,” she added. “They don’t have to spend all that time and money to find out. Sometimes it just changes focus of what they might want to do. They also find out that health care is not just physicians and nurses. There is a broad spectrum of careers, sometimes things they never even thought of or knew about.”
Kayleigh Glaspie was the volunteer coordinator and youth programs coordinator for the hospital for four years. She recently became a patient representative.
Glaspie said the career observation program “gives that connection between classroom learning and a real work environment. Students get to shadow different professionals to see if that’s the career route they want to take.”
The program is tailored to each student, she said.
“Students get to choose the area they want to shadow in. We usually have about 15 participating departments, so there are lots of options. They can be assigned to the OR, observing surgeries, or to patient care – just a variety of different areas.”
The general rule is one student per shift per department. A student may be assigned to one person or just to a department, so they can shadow everyone from physicians to techs.
“The staff acts like mentors,” Glaspie said.
Students generally find the program valuable, if their parting comments are any indication.
“Learning Link has opened me up to so many more career options. I originally wanted to be a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, but now I would like to be a pediatric trauma surgeon,” said former participant Stephanie Huisingh.
“The Learning Link program has been extremely beneficial in my decision-making process,” said student Sarah Stafford. “Although I was strongly confident that I want to pursue a career in the medical field, the program influenced my desire to do so, as well as work in a hospital instead of a clinic. This is a great program that is offered and is very informational and helpful for high school students who are interested in health care.”
Sydney Gruber said it was a little scary at the beginning, but she soon acclimated to the situation.
“At first, it was more about trying to stay out of everybody’s way, but once I figured that out, it was a pretty cool experience. Everybody there made me feel welcome, so it was really great.”
But it’s not just the students who benefit from the program.
“It’s good for our staff, too,” Glaspie said. “It kind of reignites their passion, when they’re teaching someone else.”
To apply for the program, there is an application online on the UCHealth.org website. Type “Learning Link” into the search area. The program is free.