Helping Local Students on Their Journey to Medical School

MCW StEP-UP Program | Helping local students on their journey to medical school

Since the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) Student Enrichment Program for Underrepresented Professions (StEP-UP) program began serving students in 2017, the goal has always been to provide local learners from underrepresented groups a supportive cohort that advances their interest in science and medicine in middle and high school and then supplements their pre-medicine and biomedical studies throughout each year of college. StEP-UP also connects students to MCW’s summer research programs so they have a continuous immersive experience with the institution.

In the fall of 2021, eight students who completed the StEP-UP program enrolled in medical school – with four matriculating into MCW’s School of Medicine: Juanadrian Lezama, Jose Lizarraga Mazaba, Guadalupe Valdivia Esparza and Antonio Webster.

Throughout StEP-UP’s four-year curriculum, each took full advantage of opportunities to interact with MCW staff, faculty, students and their peers while engaging in hands-on experiences, professional and personal development, MCAT preparation as well as medical school application assistance and individual advising sessions with MCW’s undergraduate outreach coordinator, Crystal Jushka.

“We designed StEP-UP to not only provide students with the clinical experiences and academic support needed for applying to medical school, but also soft-skill development with teambuilding, communication and leadership opportunities,” shares Jushka. “Overall, our goal has always been to create a sense of belonging in medicine and at MCW among students, which we have been able to do by offering longitudinal programming with a cohort model. We also work with each student to better understand their goals and how best to support them as individuals.”

Initially supported by an Advancing a Healthier Wisconsin Endowment (AHW) grant when program development began in 2015, the StEP-UP program is now fully funded by MCW to support these students in their career aspirations. But while building skills was important, some of the biggest takeaways according to MCW’s newest medical students came by way of the connections formed with their peers within the program and others at MCW.

“There were moments when I doubted that I could get into medical school, so knowing the program is going to give you the tools you need to be successful, to increase your chance for success, was really important for me,” says Webster. “And with that came some accountability, which was really important as well. Knowing there are some people who believe that I can do it. I wouldn’t have known; I wouldn’t have believed in myself. Creating those new connections and having that support is a really big part of my success.”

Lizarraga Mazaba had a similar experience during his time in the StEP-UP program and credits the program’s student panels with allowing him to believe a career in medicine was possible. StEP-UP students participate in panel discussions where they can ask questions and hear from MCW students facing similar barriers who are willing to be vulnerable and share their experiences.

“Hearing medical students sit at a table and say, ‘You’re not the only one who has faced these circumstances,’ and seeing them succeeding in the face of that was probably the most helpful,” says Lizarraga Mazaba. “So I started visualizing myself in medicine, and now I’m sitting at that table, telling my story to StEP-UP students.”

MCW StEP-UP Program alumniLizarraga Mazaba and many other StEP-UP graduates now serve on MCW’s Student Health Initiative for Pipeline Programs (SHIPP), a student organization that provides support to the StEP-UP program. Through SHIPP, Lizarraga Mazaba and others are the knowledgeable panelists and role models during these impactful student discussions as a way of giving back and to encourage current StEP-UP participants to visualize themselves in careers in medicine and biomedical studies.

“I am so proud of each of these students, and it warms my heart when they still attend our StEP-UP sessions to ‘hang out’ and offer guidance and mentorship to the current StEP-UP students,” adds Jushka.

Not only have impactful personal connections contributed to each student’s success, but StEP-UP’s ability to build confidence within its participants also has instilled a true sense of belonging within the medical community.

“Throughout my undergrad, as the classes got more arduous, there were less LatinX students, and it got to the point where I was the only LatinX student in my class. That can really feed into that imposter syndrome,” says Lezama. “Through StEP-UP, I was able to see that LatinX representation in medicine, which I feel is important. Without the StEP-UP program, I don’t know if I would have been as fruitful in applying to medical school. The support system and all the resources and help that’s given work tremendously in one’s favor.”

Such resources also assisted Valdivia Esparza on her journey through the program and eventual matriculation into medical school at MCW.

“The financial aspect of the program was very helpful. It took a lot of stress away from me having to think about saving money for MCAT practice materials, for the applications, secondary applications, first and second interviews. I didn’t know about these things, and hearing recommendations and tips from students who had applied before was very helpful,” she shares.

Webster agrees. “There are little steps in the medical school application process that I don’t know I would have discovered in time,” he says. “Being in the program helped with picking up those little nuggets of gold along the way.”

Lezama, Lizarraga Mazaba, Valdivia Esparza and Webster all hope to see the StEP-UP program expand each year to reach even more students because for them, as each continues their journey through medical school at MCW, all agree that StEP-UP made a tremendous impact on where they are now.

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