For students hoping to get a leg up in their pursuit of a health professions career, there are no better programs than the Rural Health Opportunities Program (RHOP) and Kearney Health Opportunities Program (KHOP) offered through UNMC and the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
Combined, these programs, along with the PHEAST (Public Health Early Admissions Student Track) program at Peru State College and the support of the four Area Health Education Centers (AHEC) across the state, are among the leaders in helping rural students achieve their dreams of becoming a health professional.
Just ask Mason Casper, Sydney Kerr and Hannah Dickey.
As a high school senior at Grand Island Northwest High School, Dickey applied for and was accepted into the RHOP program, matriculated to Wayne State College and is in her first year of dental school at the UNMC College of Dentistry in Lincoln.
"I was that weird little kid who always knew what I wanted to do and for as long as I can remember I've always wanted to be a dentist," said Dickey. "The RHOP program really helped me sharpen my study skills and prepare for the rigors of dental school."
Dickey joined the pre-dental club as soon as she got into the RHOP program which allowed her to visit the dental school in Lincoln, meet the faculty and students and ask questions.
"As a freshman in college those visits really helped me to stay focused and just say this is where I want to be and reminded me that I needed to work hard to get there," Dickey said.
While they were still in high school, Casper and Kerr also took advantage of the health careers club offered by the Central Nebraska AHEC. Both said that it was through this club that they were introduced to the variety of health careers, including the one that would spark their individual interests.
"We would visit local health clinics in some of the rural communities and I would get to see what it was like to be a doctor," said Casper, who is a sophomore majoring in biology and pre-med at UNK.
Kerr, who is from Hastings, Nebraska, said it was during a visit to one of the local community colleges that she learned about radiography and discovered how much she really liked it.
Both Kerr, who also is a sophomore at UNK majoring in the pre-radiology tech program, and Casper are enrolled in the KHOP program.
"We help students become health care professionals with high school exploratory opportunities like our health careers club, college students through KHOP Learning Community activities like rural health care case studies, and professional students through AHEC Scholars rural health trainings with our community leaders & partners. Our activities teach students about rural Nebraska healthcare practice opportunities and potentially connect them to their future careers serving the rural citizens of our state and ultimately improving Nebraska's health outcomes," said Brandon Drozd, Central Nebraska AHEC Program Director.
There are definitely advantages to being a part of the KHOP program at UNK, Casper and Kerr said.
"Being from a smaller high school, no one really had the same goals as me, so when I came to UNK I lived in the learning community dorm where I was with people who had similar goals to mine," Casper said. "I met my five best friends there."
Along with the social aspect of helping students get acclimated to college life, the KHOP program also offers hands on training, research opportunities and mentoring, Kerr said.
"Take advantage of every opportunity you are given, ask questions, pick peoples' brains, the more you learn the easier it gets as you continue through college and professional school," Dickey said.
Perhaps the biggest thing that these programs do for students is the support they all offer in encouragement, mentorship and educational opportunities throughout the student's academic career, said Lizzy Gillespie, deputy director of the Nebraska AHEC Program Office based at UNMC in the Department of Family Medicine.
"AHEC is the connector between the academic institutions and the students and we all have the same goal to support local communities and students so they will have healthier and brighter futures," Gillespie said.
AHECs were created through community, state and federal partnerships as a way in which medical schools and community health centers can cooperate to recruit and train health care professionals to serve in rural areas, she said.
Funding comes from a $3.7 million grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration, which is granted to the Nebraska AHEC Program Office and distributed to the four AHECS across the state, including the Central Nebraska AHEC, Northern Nebraska AHEC, Nebraska Panhandle AHEC and Omaha AHEC.
Gillespie said the Program Office supports the Nebraska AHECs by lending technical assistance in planning and strategizing for events, logistics, helping directors with financial reporting, and anything that goes along with the reporting requirements of a federal grant.
As for students currently enrolled in a health professions program who have at least two years left, they are offered opportunities through the new AHEC Scholars Program, she said.
Through this program students can participate in workshops focused on interprofessional education, local challenges rural communities face, resume building, practice transformation, current and emerging health topics and social determinants of health among others.
"Our goal is to enrich and elevate their current curriculum and, in this way, offer them every advantage we can to support them as they embark on their health professions career," Gillespie said.
As with Dickey and Kerr, Casper said he hopes to serve families in the same rural communities he grew up in and he credits the AHEC and KHOP programs for helping him get there.
"My dream is to either come back to Kearney or be father east but live in between smaller communities and have health clinics in two or three different smaller communities to provide care," Casper said. "With the support I've gotten from the different programs I know that dream will one day become a reality."