30 years of medical education for low-income teens

Students find family at Stanford

William Tate (left), a medical student at Stanford, instructs participants of the Stanford Medical Youth Science Program in the anatomy lab.
Steve Fisch

Homar Murillo was 4 years old when he first suffered from heart failure. Doctors near his home in Hayward implanted a pacemaker when he was 5, which he had for nine years. He also suffered from severe asthma, recurrent pneumonia and — because his pacemaker limited his activity — obesity, which led to blood circulation problems and extreme numbness in his legs.

Today Murillo, 17, is a senior at Leadership Public High School — and he’s healthy. Inspired by the medical teams who helped him recover, he’s determined to become a trauma surgeon.

Murillo’s school counselor encouraged him to apply to the Stanford Medical Youth Science Program, a free, five-week residential summer program for low-income high schoolers from Northern California who aspire to careers in the medical and health sciences. Murillo attended the 2018 session — the program’s 30th — bringing its alumni roster to more than 700.

“I expected study, study, study, study, and no one talking to each other,” Murillo said. “But you walk into these doors and it’s like you have a whole new family. I’ve never gotten so close to people as I have in this program.”

Nurturing connections

The program combines science education, clinical internships, human anatomy lectures and labs, research projects on health disparities, and group activities that facilitate bonding and personal development. Strong connections that form among the 10 Stanford undergraduate counselors and 24 high school participants create a sense of belonging and kinship, according to several participants in the program. At least half of the teens in the program are away from home for the first time.

Homar Murillo (wearing glasses), a 17-year-old student at Leadership Public High School in Hayward, wants to be a trauma surgeon.
Steve Fisch

“We have identity workshops; ‘todos time,’ when everyone responds to a question; and storytelling,” said Luis Arreola, 18, a rising sophomore at Stanford and 2018 program counselor. Arreola, from El Sobrante, is an alumnus of the 2015 program. “All these activities push the participants out of their comfort zone. They become closer, more authentic. It’s almost as if you knew these people your entire life.”

The close, community experience is especially important for students with big goals complicated by challenging backgrounds. “This is a program for students who are low-income, who often experience high levels of adversity. And for counselors, it’s not just a summer job,” said Alivia Shorter, executive director of the program. Shorter was a counselor in the program in 2008, following her sophomore year at Stanford. “It’s a transformative experience for counselors, too, many of whom come from a similar background and felt that a mentor really changed their lives. Now they want to do that for someone else.”

Among students who fail to complete high school in California, the vast majority — 80 percent — are low-income, according to a 2018 report from Johns Hopkins University. Close to 100 percent of participants in the Stanford Medical Youth Science Program graduate from high school, and just over 80 percent graduate from a four-year college. “We’ve been tracking alumni since day one,” said Shorter, who is also the director of diversity and outreach for Stanford Pre-Collegiate Studies, a set of programs for teens of which the Stanford Medical Youth Science Program is now a part.

Changing their communities

The criteria for acceptance into the program are selective but aren’t focused solely on academic achievement. “We’re looking for students who are ready to dive in deep,” Shorter said. “And we know that might not mean the highest GPA. We’re really asking them, ‘What do you see in your community that you want to change, and how are you already taking those steps?’ ‘How are you already getting involved in this world outside of just your coursework?’ We’re looking at their academic potential from a bigger picture above their test scores.”

The program was conceived by two Stanford pre-med students, Michael McCullough and Mark Lawrence, who in 1987 approached Marilyn Winkleby, MPH, PhD, now a professor emerita of medicine at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, seeking faculty sponsorship and financial support. Winkleby, who came from a low-income background, embraced the idea and secured funding. In 2011, the program was recognized with the U.S. Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring.

An immediate benefit of the program is what the students bring back to their communities, Shorter said. “We can touch only 24 lives each summer,” she said. “But the students take home so much. They’re changing their communities the day they go home. It doesn’t just happen years from now when they become doctors. We don’t have to wait for them to be leaders. They are leaders right this very second.”

Winkleby still attends the first day of every summer session and stays involved with many former students for years after they finish the program, supporting alumni as they navigate the academic and professional worlds.

“Given my background, I had to learn to walk in the world of Stanford. And that was challenging. We’re empowering these students to know that you can walk in both worlds,” Winkleby said. “We’re empowering them to know that they’re smart, they belong in college and we need them in health careers.”

The program’s online application portal opens in mid-December each year, with applications due by Feb. 15. Admission information for the program is available online.