Andrea Garcia, a junior pursuing a psychology degree with a concentration in pre-occupational therapy, hadn’t been exposed to her future career before she participated in Brenau’s Medical Scholars program.
“I had never heard of occupational therapy prior,” she says. “I chose Brenau because they have a great and well-known OT program, which I learned about through Medical Scholars.”
She says the activities and introductions to various types of health care careers left an impression on her.
“It was also super interesting to see real cadavers and human brains; that part of the program truly stuck with me,” she says. “Anatomy and physiology has become one of my greatest interests because of this experience.”
The Medical Scholars and Ivester Health Care Scholars programs give high school students an opportunity to experience first-hand careers that, like Garcia’s chosen profession, are in high demand.
Occupational therapists, physical therapists, nurse practitioners and physician assistants—four areas highlighted in the scholars programs—are in-demand jobs in Georgia, according to the state’s Department of Labor. Through 2023, the department predicts 1,080 expected annual openings for nurse practitioners, 520 for physician assistants, 480 for physical therapists and 290 for occupational therapists.
Gale Starich, dean of the Ivester College of Health Sciences and Sidney O. Smith Jr. Graduate School, says the region’s population increase has driven growth in the health care industry and Brenau’s programs in the 20 years she’s been at the university.
Northeast Georgia Health System has 9,000 employees and serves 1.5 million people across the region at four hospital campuses and several other locations, according to the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, and boasts more that 1,200 medical staff representing more than 50 specialties.
“The major employer is the Northeast Georgia Health System and other health care positions,” Starich says. “Gainesville is becoming a health care hub, and everything at the Ivester College of Health Sciences has been really built since the 2000s. It helps the health of the community.”
For students still learning about medical careers, the Medical Scholars program allows selected applicants from several area high schools to take part in hands-on activities about the health care professional degrees offered at Brenau. Roughly 70 high school seniors split into groups and, from September to March, learn about the varying professions in health care and how they work, all while actively learning and engaging with Brenau’s faculty and students.
The Ivester Health Care Scholars, aimed at students who already have decided their future lies in health care, is in its first year through the Hall County Schools Ivester Early College Program. The program allows dual-enrolled high school students to earn college credit while taking health care courses. Students can even earn their Certified Nursing Assistant credential.
“Brenau benefits twofold,” Starich says of the programs. “High school students don’t understand the career elements, so even short-term experience, like in the Medical Scholars program, is really valuable for our community in the effort to do career exploration and help boost the health care workforce. And, we want our health professionals to look like our patients. This exploration helps create diversity in the field.”
Along with exposing students to the career fields available to them, Starich says it also helps shape Brenau’s future classes, with students like Garcia opting to attend Brenau when they chose to go to college. She says it also shines a light on what college opportunities are available for students.
“It can make college dreams become a reality,” she says.