$3.2-million grant supports new STAHR program for students from disadvantaged backgrounds

A new grant-supported program will allow the School of Medicine to expand its Summer Schools program for high school students and create new programs for undergraduate and graduate students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

When it comes to attending and completing a health professions degree program, students from economically and educationally disadvantaged backgrounds typically succeed at a far lower rate than students from strong schools with thriving communities.

The UMKC School of Medicine, in collaboration with the School of Dentistry and the School of Pharmacy, is working to change that with the aid of a recent five-year, $3.2-million grant from the United States Health Resources and Services Administration to support a partnership program designed to improve those numbers.

Students in Training, in Academia, Health and Research (STAHR) Partnership is a two-pronged initiative to increase the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds entering health care programs and better prepare them for success. It will continue to build up and expand on the medical school’s already successful high school Summer Scholars program and the dental school’s Admissions Enhancement Program.

Undergraduate and graduate students admitted to UMKC health professions programs have the opportunity to participate in the STAHR Ambassador program, a research-based mentoring model that uses defined principles, known as the Thomas Principles, to retain and graduate students.

Alice Arredondo, UMKC admissions director,  also serves as assistant dean of admissions at the School of Medicine. A co-investigator on the grant proposal, Arredondo said students from disadvantaged backgrounds historically experience greater challenges entering and succeeding in health care fields.

“This grant will allow us to support students in overcoming academic, economic and social barriers, while having an impact on the diversity in our educational environment and the success of students from disadvantaged backgrounds in the UMKC health sciences,” she said.

Nate Thomas, School of Medicine associate dean for diversity and inclusion and co-investigator, said he and Arredondo used research-based best practices for admissions, retention and graduation and work already being done at the schools of medicine, dentistry and pharmacy as a basis for their successful grant request. He added that the medical school’s quickly growing student research program played an important role.

Academic preparation and resources are lacking for many students in the Kansas City region who are interested in entering the health professions. The STAHR program is designed to address those needs and introduce students from underprivileged backgrounds to careers in health care that would otherwise seem out of reach.

“This partnership will allow us to help students develop academically, psychosocially, professionally and as leaders who can have a positive impact on the workforce and their communities,” Thomas said.

The Scholars Summer Program will offer different tracts for high school and current college students. The high school program will expand the medical school’s Summer Scholars program that began in 1980 for students to explore career opportunities in health care and prepare them to enter and succeed in college. The grant allows this program to extend from two to six weeks, and provides increased focus on recruiting and retaining students interested in health care fields. The undergraduate program will also be six-weeks and with increased experiences in a clinical setting, supplemental instruction in the sciences, research opportunities, and reinforced skill development to support student academic progression and retention.

The year-round Ambassador Program for undergraduate and professional students will focus on student development. A tiered cluster mentoring framework with faculty members, residents, practitioners and upper-class college students, provides leadership and career development to further prepare younger college and professional students for success in post-graduate residencies and the health professions workforce.

“By providing students early access to hands-on programming and mentoring, we are focused on preparing students to achieve success in college and, eventually, graduate or professional school and the workforce,” Arredondo said.

Patricia Marken, Pharm.D., F.C.C.P., associate dean for student affairs at the School of Pharmacy, said the grant supports programs that will help produce health care professionals that are in demand.

“This grant increases the chance for talented students to achieve a career that is personally fulfilling, positively impacts communities and provides financial security for their own family,” she said. “The School of Pharmacy is excited to be a part of this grant and partner with our colleagues in the UMKC Health Sciences District.”

HRSA highlighted the collaborative partnership between the schools as a strength.

“I am really excited about the inter-professional opportunities for our dental and dental hygiene students to build relationships with students pursuing other health care careers,” Melanie Simmer-Beck, professor and director of the School of Dentistry Admission Enhancement Program, said.

The School of Nursing and Health Studies, while not part of the funding proposal, did help in framing the initial steps of the grant, Thomas said. It does offer similar federal-grant funded programming for high school and college students, including KC HealthTracks, providing mentorship and programs for more than a dozen area high schools.