The 14-year-old wants to become a nurse someday.
She lives in Aurora, adjacent to the Anschutz Medical Campus, the only academic medical center in the Rocky Mountain region. Also on campus is Bri Hayes’ innovative school, Aurora Science & Tech (AST).
Even so, Bri had never met a nurse until she and her fellow AST ninth graders took a field trip and walked from their school at 2450 N. Scranton St. a few blocks south to see the ER and other parts of UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital.
Bri was instantly captivated when nurse Jennie Zuniga-Brown shared her story. She described having been a high school honor student and athlete, then detouring when she got pregnant at age 16. She later found her calling as a nurse and nurse leader.
After hearing Zuniga-Brown talk, Bri saw a vision for her own future. So Bri made a beeline to the front of a hospital auditorium, pulled out her notebook so she could jot down information and quizzed Zuniga-Brown.
“I couldn’t stop smiling,” said Bri. “I asked, ‘How did you become a nurse, and how did you know you wanted to become a nurse?’
“Since middle school, I’ve wanted to become a nurse, but I didn’t know how to pursue it or where to start,” the ninth grader said. “Hearing her story made me even more interested in nursing.”
Innovative school on academic medical campus fosters close ties between students and medical experts
These kinds of meaningful interactions between students and medical experts are exactly why leaders in both education and health care worked hard to anchor a school on the medical campus. Leaders wanted to spark new dreams and new ideas for both students and medical professionals alike.
In 2021, UCHealth contributed $250,000 to fund a science and innovation lab at AST. The school opened during the pandemic, and students had to do remote closes at first. But ever since AST opened for in-person classes at their newly built school in 2021, students have done multiple excursions to the hospital and other facilities on campus.
AST is one of only a handful of schools in the United States to share space with an academic medical center. And the Aurora middle and high school is the only one of these schools nationally that’s open to all students without a special application.
That’s especially meaningful because AST is located in a high-need area of Aurora, Colorado’s most diverse city.
The school currently has about 760 students in grades 6 through 10 and will continue to grow year by year until it’s a full middle and high school. Of those students, just over 70% qualify for free and reduced lunch, which is a way of identifying families living at or near the poverty level. About 73% of AST students are Hispanic, while approximately 17% are Asian, 7% are Black, 10% are white and others are multi-racial or Native Hawaiian.
At all of the DSST public schools, students focus on STEM learning, which stands for science, technology, engineering and math. Because AST is located on a medical campus, the AST students’ STEM work focuses on the health sciences.
Ninth graders study biomedical sciences, while 10th graders focus on body systems. Starting next year, high school juniors will be doing internships with experts on campus.
Katie Boye, AST’s director of STEM and partnerships, said the connections with others on the Anschutz Medical Campus have been excellent.
“It goes both ways. Experts are coming here, and we’re doing excursions. They’re great experiential activities,” said Boye.
(Learn about “epidemiology day,” when UCHealth experts shared a lesson with AST students about germs and viruses.)
Nurse shares story of becoming pregnant in high school and charting a new course
Bri started at AST this year and before becoming a student there, had no idea that her school had such close ties to the nearby hospital. She loved the fall field trip, especially hearing Zuniga-Brown’s candid, entertaining talk.
Zuniga-Brown bonded quickly with the AST students. She has a daughter at the school, so she’s familiar with their curriculum.
Zuniga-Brown also grew up in Aurora near East 6th Avenue and South Peoria. She brought her old yearbook from West Middle School along with an Empire Magazine story that featured her back in 1998.
At that time, Zuniga-Brown hoped to become a veterinarian or an Olympic basketball player with an athletic shoe named after her. She was on the honor roll and was a standout student, leader and athlete at a time when her neighborhood was dealing with a lot of gang violence.
Zuniga-Brown was on track to fulfill her dreams and head to college when her life took an unexpected turn.
“I was going to graduate my junior year. Instead, I got kicked out of school. I was pregnant, and they told me, ‘Get on your way, gal.’”
Zuniga-Brown had no choice but to leave Overland High School in 2001 and wasn’t sure where life would take her. After giving birth to her son, she was soon spending several hours every day in a hospital. Her son had gotten RSV as a newborn and needed to be hospitalized for a couple of weeks. During that time, Zuniga-Brown grew close with her baby’s nurses. She loved the way they calmed her worries and took great care of her son. All the while, they were opening her eyes up to a new potential career path.
“Day in and day out, the nurses talked to me and told me about their lives and their journeys. They said, ‘This is a pretty cool. I work three days a week.’” Zuniga-Brown recalled.
“I had a nurse tell me how to register for school. I got my GED and enrolled in nursing school. I was in college before a lot of my friends had finished high school,” she said.
Zuniga-Brown now has three children and is a nursing leader in the cardiothoracic intensive care unit at University of Colorado Hospital. The specialized team there takes care of very sick patients, like people recovering from transplant surgeries and patients who need to be on heart and bypass machines, known as ECMO. (Read about how ECMO saved one young woman’s life.)
‘If you don’t see future careers, you can’t imagine them for yourself’
Zuniga-Brown told the students how much she loves nursing and the dedicated people with whom she works.
“Here at the hospital, people show up for other people,” she said.
She encouraged the students to do the same for each other and to think about their goals for the future.
“You’re showing up for each other,” she said. “You, too, are planning ahead and participating in school. You’re working on resilience.”
Zuniga-Brown, now 39, originally got a two-year Associate’s degree in nursing and later went on to get her Bachelor’s degree. She told the students that her oldest child is now a successful business owner. Her younger children are 20 and 15 and they are both doing great. The youngest has been at AST since it opened.
“The faculty there are really committed to the success of the students,” Zuniga-Brown said.
She loves the partnership with the medical campus and wants all the AST students to dream big — whether they’re interested in careers in health care or other fields.
“The proximity of the school to the rest of the campus is pretty great,” Zuniga-Brown said. “If you don’t see it, you can’t imagine it for yourself.”
Student took advantage of the opportunity to learn from a nurse: ‘I’m talking about my future’
As an Aurora native, Zuniga-Brown is especially excited about giving opportunities to students who come from diverse neighborhoods and lower-income families. Zuniga-Brown’s grandfather served in the Air Force and was stationed for a time at nearby Lowry Field in Denver before the base closed and evolved into an east Denver neighborhood. Zuniga-Brown’s mom grew up in Aurora. The nursing leader is proud that she’s been able to build a life and career in her hometown.
When Bri approached her after her talk, Zuniga-Brown saw the teen’s potential.
“She was very confident and professional. She was poised and comfortable speaking to me,” Zuniga-Brown recalled.
One of Bri’s friends tried to pull her away, but Bri had more questions to ask. Zuniga-Brown loved how Bri told her friend not to distract her.
“I’m talking about my future,” Bri said.
Then she studiously took notes on Zuniga-Brown’s advice and wrote down her email address so the two could keep in touch.
“She was really impressive,” Zuniga-Brown said.
Bri likes caring for people, including her 11-year-old little sister and her mom, who was born with a heart problem.
“I help her. It’s hard having a disability and taking care of kids,” said Bri, who also lives with her grandmother.
“I’m helping with cleaning and cooking. My mom is my best friend,” said Bri.
She’s thrilled that her school has opened the doors to the tall towers of the hospital that she can see from her home.
“My school is so interesting,” said Bri. “When I first came here, I thought it was a normal school. But it’s connected to a hospital, which is pretty cool. We have a lot of big opportunities, and the teachers help us out.”
Health care careers offer endless opportunities
Now that Bri has met Zuniga-Brown, she officially knows a nurse and can seek wisdom when she needs it.
Zuniga-Brown’s advice for Bri and for all the AST students who visited the hospital is to be open to various careers in health care.
“The path doesn’t have to look the same for everyone. There are a lot of ways to get to the finish line,” she said. “I worked in restaurants when I had little kids so I could get my Associate’s degree.”
She then started working as a nurse and loved the way she could combine nursing with being a mom.
“Nursing provides endless opportunities. A lot of people like the flexibility, and you make a great living.”