It's Never Too Early to Get a Jump Start on Your Career

February 27, 2013 Updated Feb 27, 2013 at 1:32 PM EDT

By Elizabeth Carey

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February 27, 2013 Updated Feb 27, 2013 at 1:32 PM EDT

It's never too early to get a jump start on your career and area high school students are learning that firsthand. Thanks to their proximity to Mercy Hospital, and a chance meeting that happened in the right place at the right time, Mt. Mercy Academy (MMA) and Bishop Timon - St. Jude (BTSJ) students are getting a taste of what life is like in the healthcare industry.

It all began four years ago, when school president Sister Mary Ellen Twist happened to chat with Michael Moley, Senior Vice President of Human Resources at the Catholic Health System. "We talked about the potential of having a partnership between Catholic Health, the system, and MMA," she said. "He was very, very interested in this concept."

Three years later, the Academy of Science and Healthcare is giving high school students, from Mt. Mercy and Bishop Timon - St. Jude, hands on experience in the healthcare field.

It makes sense for the Catholic high schools to partner with Mercy Hospital, which is within walking distance of both campuses. But there's more to the partnership than geographics (though that is a convenience in scheduling learning sessions.) "The Catholic Health System is the partner so we have connections with Mercy Flight, St. Joseph's Hospital and more," said Sr. Mary Ellen. "It gives boys and girls opportunities of hands on, first time experience with healthcare delivery as it is happening."

"Many of them come in and think, 'I want to be a doctor.' They get into the hospital situation and realize there are so many more fields: pathology, nutrition, physician assistants," said Candace Wagner, a science teacher at MMA who oversees the program, which includes field trips, nine weeks of learning rotations through the health system in various departments, followed by internship opportunities for students who are seniors.

"We get them into healthcare and show them fields," said Nancy Preskop, Recruitment Program Coordinator for Catholic Health. "There's nothing worse than getting into the wrong field and taking on college debt with no opportunities or finding out it's not for me."

Instead, students like Laura Pantano, a senior at MMA, are able to make informed decisions on what career path to follow well in advance. "I knew I wanted to do something in the healthcare field, but I had no idea what," Pantano said. "We went to the emergency room and I was interested, but after doing the rotation, I realized it's not my thing."

"Jumping into a career is something you want to avoid," says Preskop. "At career fairs, I hear, 'I have a teaching degree with no work. How can I get into a healthcare career?' These are the things you have to think about when you pick a career and go through schools and take on loans."

"Our hospitals, home care and long term care facilities employ a number of people: 8,500 as of this year. We hired 1,700 alone from Western New York in 2012," said Bridget Russo, Director of Recruitment, Retention and Development for Catholic Health. "400 of those folks were nurses. Beyond that, there are also other opportunities and fields to get into. Rehab is an amazing, booming industry right now so there are needs for physical and occupational therapists."

Moley says partnerships, at the high school level, can make it easier to fill those jobs, "Catholic Health recognized years ago that the healthcare industry would have a significant challenge in filling critical positions. To meet this challenge, one of our key strategic initiatives was to engage high school students to prepare them for opportunities in this growing industry."

Catholic Health is also a founding member of the Health Sciences Charter School in Buffalo, but Sr. Mary Ellen says MMA and BTSJ "are the only private schools engaged in such a full partnership with a major health system."

While high school internships are now commonplace, students are beginning to realize they have to take things a step further to stand out in college admissions. "This distinctive program provides the type of experience college admissions boards seek in their applicants," said Margaret Staszak, MMA principal.

This, Russo says, proves that it's never too early to start planning for your future. "Even starting at the high school age, I'm looking for the next generation to help us out in the healthcare field," she said.

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