By: Kaci Anderson

This is a daunting time to join the healthcare industry. A raging pandemic, budget cuts, and limited access to resources such as PPE have made working as a medical care professional exceedingly difficult. However, when the first signs of the pandemic surfaced in March, I was inspired to learn I had been offered a summer internship at PCCI, a leading nonprofit, data science, artificial intelligence, and innovation organization, affiliated with Parkland Health & Hospital System in Dallas.

As part of my training, I joined a team of medical professionals tracking and analyzing COVID-19 cases in our region to advise the Dallas County health system in monitoring trends and establishing guidelines. It was an experience that solidified my decision to pursue a career as a nurse practitioner.

I’ve wanted to become a nurse practitioner since I was in middle school, when I visited my local clinic for a broken ankle. The nurse practitioner reviewed the X-ray with me and walked me through a plan for how to care for my ankle, what the healing process would be, and when I could expect to feel better.

When I returned to the clinic six weeks later, I was treated by the same nurse practitioner. I’ll never forget his excitement when he showed me my follow-up X-ray indicating my bones had healed. Seeing how the plan he made for my recovery had worked made a lasting impression on me. I knew then that this was what I wanted to do: come up with treatment plans to help people and witness them get better.

Today, I still intend to pursue nursing to help people, but I no longer want to stop there. My new goal is to start my own practice, so I can begin to reshape what the healthcare industry looks like. At a time when health care workers are rapidly becoming our most in-demand professionals, I regard my internship as a critical opportunity, one many students—particularly students of color like me—don’t receive.

High school career preparation programs, such as the one I am enrolled in with NAF, are already expanding and diversifying our future workforce by equipping students to start careers in industries like healthcare that are sorely in need of gender and racial diversity. Today, there are 86 NAF Academies of Health Sciences in America, and NAF has prepared nearly 40,000 healthcare professionals. In the 2019-2020 school year, more than 70% of NAF students were people of color, and more than two-thirds—67%—came from under-invested in areas. Students like me have interned with prestigious research institutes, doctors’ offices, medical clinics, and hospitals, and have learned about nursing and counseling services in local universities.

My internship was also valuable in teaching me how we can transform the industry to better meet our needs. Currently, the healthcare industry is extremely lacking in diversity, even though it serves diverse populations. As of 2018, more than 77% of advanced nurse practitioners were white, according to U.S. census data. Less than 7% were Black. This does not come close to reflecting our demographics. Here in Dallas, for example, most residents—71%—are people of color.

As a young Black woman, this disconnect affects me directly. Black and Latinx communities are much more likely to get sick with COVID-19 than the rest of the population. Sadly, they are also far more likely to receive lower-quality healthcare and have higher mortality rates than white populations.

As clinics across the U.S. administer the coronavirus vaccine, people of color are more likely not to have access to this treatment while COVID-19 cases in their locations continue to rise.

The healthcare system must change how it operates by building a talent pipeline to meet growing health concerns and ensuring medical professionals represent the demographics of those in need. This can start as soon as students enter high school by advocating for school districts to obtain resources to provide opportunities for students of all backgrounds to see themselves as future members of this critical industry.

High school career preparation programs like mine have helped open doors for young people all across the nation—something too many students get a late start on.

My generation faces one of the most daunting job markets in history. Last April, the unemployment rate among Black workers was nearly 17% compared to a white unemployment rate of 14%. The unemployment rate among Latinx workers was nearly 19%. What’s more, high school students preparing to graduate this year are less likely to attend college than ever before and face limited job prospects.

While this reality feels bleak, I am optimistic about my future because I was given the chance to explore career options and learn a variety of skills at any early age. Having the NAF advantage will prime me to achieve my dreams later in life while giving back to my community.

The moment I learned I had gotten the internship at PCCI was meaningful not just because it’s a step toward achieving my own ambitions, but because it signaled to me that NOW is my time to make a lasting impact. My education connected me with a career path where I can help close the opportunity gap by creating jobs for people of color and new graduates. When I start my own nursing clinic, I will be changing the image people have when they think of medical professionals while helping to better our world.

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Kaci Anderson is a high school senior at The Innovation Design Entrepreneurship Academy (IDEA HS) in Dallas. 

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