Historic Pipeline Program Celebrates 20 Years Diversifying the Health Workforce

    • November 21, 2010

Something familiar, something new highlighted Project L/EARN’s 20th anniversary conference and reunion late this summer. The milestone gathering in New Brunswick, New Jersey, showcased the accomplishments of some of the program’s 150 alumni and featured prominent experts on health disparities. For the first time, it also offered a speed mentoring session that facilitated rapid-fire networking between experts in health research and senior program alumni who served as mentors to L/EARN alumni at all stages of their education and careers.

For 20 years, Project L/EARN has given students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, first generation college-goers, and students from under-represented groups the research training, experience and mentoring that can strengthen their prospects for admission to master’s degree and doctoral programs. Students in this unique summer health research internship program receive 10 weeks of intensive, hands-on training in research skills under the guidance of a distinguished faculty mentor and instructional staff. More than two-thirds of those in the program go on to graduate school; thus far, more than 70 students in the program have completed or are in the process of getting master’s degrees and more than 40 have completed or are in the process of getting doctoral degrees.

Funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research, and Rutgers University, Project L/EARN boasts an impressive network of alumni from campuses across the nation and Puerto Rico. RWJF began funding the program in 2008, at which time Project L/EARN made a concerted effort to recruit more nursing students into the program.

Francis Herrera, a senior nursing student in the BSN to MSN program at the University of Pennsylvania and 2009 Project L/EARN intern, is one example. He called the 20-year anniversary conference invigorating. “This was a great way to celebrate what Project L/EARN is all about, and a great way to support research,” Herrera said. “The session allowed me to meet people from different disciplines and expand my network.”

Project L/EARN connects students with experts in their fields of interest and provides opportunities to apply their research skills, Herrera added. He is planning a career working to improve long-term care facilities, especially for geriatrics patients suffering with dementia.

A first-generation college student, Herrera says that before Project L/EARN, he knew little about the importance of research in transforming health care systems. His final project for the program examined quality of care in nursing homes, as measured by family satisfaction.

Diane “Deedee” Davis, B.A., who is Project L/EARN’s Program Director, said the program’s strategies are designed to strengthen the skills of its students in multiple ways. “The hope is that the combination of their unique perspectives with sound training in research statistics and methods, along with exposure to the approaches of a variety of disciplines, and a nurturing professional environment will translate into well-trained, well-connected scholar researchers,” she said.

Putting Students on the Road to Success

Giselle Colorado, B.A., too, saw her education and career prospects strengthened immeasurably by the program. A 24-year-old New Jersey native whose roots are Peruvian and Colombian, Colorado knew by age 12 that she wanted to be a clinical psychologist. “Of course, I didn’t know what that meant. I just knew I wanted to help people,” the Project L/EARN alumna and first-generation college student said. “I always had a plan. I wanted to go straight to grad school after completing Rutgers in 2008. But I didn’t score well on my GRE. The idea that a test score might keep me from achieving a dream...was upsetting.”

Recognizing that some students don’t test well, “we encourage graduate programs to evaluate the total student, including their grades, research paper and experience and letters of recommendation, as well as their test scores,” said Jane Miller, Ph.D., Faculty Director of the program. Project L/EARN also provides alumni with a “road map” on how to apply to graduate school, steering them to courses and books that help improve their test-taking skills, build their confidence, fine-tune the personal essays they write, and identify letter writers from among their faculty mentors so they can compete successfully for acceptance into graduate school. These topics are covered during academic advising workshops taught by co-directors Davis and Miller, which follow the summer training program.

Project L/EARN is a rigorous program with a competitive application process. Applicants are required to write five essays, including one apiece for each of three faculty mentors. They choose their faculty mentors from a list provided by the program. Students who join the program complete the equivalent of four college courses over 10 weeks; these courses address research methods, statistics, writing and other topics. Students also attend mandatory lectures and write and present a complete research paper.

“Project L/EARN was so much more than a summer internship,” Colorado said. “It’s been an intensive and inspiring academic prep experience. When I had my interview at Yeshiva University, I was really prepared and not anxious at all.” L/EARN director Deedee Davis had connected her with alumni in her field, who conducted mock interviews so Colorado would know what to expect. She was accepted into the doctoral program at Yeshiva and plans to become a clinical psychologist.

Giving Back to the Program

Theresa Simpson, B.S., has been where Colorado is today. The only person in the 20-year history of Project L/EARN to become an instructor the very year after being trained in the program, today she is a doctoral student studying medical sociology at Rutgers.

Simpson says that just a few years ago, her path to higher education was far from certain. She was a nontraditional student in her late 20s who yearned to go to college full-time when she was accepted into the Project L/EARN class of 2003. "It’s not for everyone,” she says. “This program is only for students who want to be challenged. Even though I have made lots of sacrifices, the rewards and impact on my life and career are greater than I could have ever imagined."

Her commitment to giving back through Project L/EARN is deep. Simpson has been the course instructor for Project L/EARN for seven years. She applauds the “speed mentoring” activities at the recent conference, which was based on a technique pioneered by RWJF’s New Connections program to provide guidance and ideas to students who are new to Project L/EARN. Modeled after the popular “speed-dating” ritual, speed-mentoring gives students a chance to glean wisdom and form relationships that can help propel their academic careers. The volunteer mentors spend 15 minutes each with students to discuss their professional goals and interests. Mentors are paired with students based on their interests and academic or career stage, and come prepared to have well-informed and thoughtful conversations.

Simpson credits all her experiences with Project L/EARN with boosting her confidence and changing her life.

“The program is so much more than a paid summer job,” agrees co-director Miller. “If that is what a student is looking for, L/EARN is not the answer. I look for the kid who is hungry—the one who will say after completing an assignment, ‘that was interesting, what else can I read?’ We are looking at a student’s work ethic and passion as well as their academic aptitude.”

“It is so cool to watch them grow academically and gain confidence during their internships,” said Miller, who has mentored 15 students in 17 years with the program. “You can actually see them start to believe in themselves and say, ‘Wow, I really know this stuff!’”

Simpson models the growth Miller describes. The married mother of a two-year old daughter, she is teaching her first course in research methodology at the university level this fall. For her, Colorado and Herrera, Project L/EARN’s 20th anniversary conference this summer was a chance to recommit to health research, and pay tribute to a program that is changing their—and many other—young lives and the face of the health research community.

The Project L/EARN summer program will run from May 31 through Aug. 5, 2011. Applications for summer 2011 will be available in late December 2010 and will be due Feb. 15, 2011. Click here for information on how to apply.