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This post is part of a series featuring UCF’s community engagement and partnerships with the downtown Orlando and Parramore communities:

Three years ago, Ashley Williams, a 2014 graduate of Orlando’s Jones High School, couldn’t imagine herself headed to college to become a nurse.

But thanks to a UCF College of Medicine effort to increase the diversity of community healthcare providers, she is doing just that – on a full scholarship. Williams is one of 12 inaugural students in UCF’s Health Leaders pipeline program – 100 percent of the participants — who attended college in the fall. And all are planning to study health-related fields, from microbiology to nursing.

For the past three years, Health Leaders provided the Jones students with tutoring and skills development in areas like critical thinking and research. Students attended summer camps, where they learned about health careers, used microbiology to identify a criminal suspect, and saw how strokes damage the human brain. They came to the medical school for tours and learning enhancement. Perhaps most importantly, they were mentored by UCF faculty and students to believe they could be successful in health careers.

“To be honest, I was really scared to go into school in a big field such as medicine,” said Williams, who entered Rollins College< in Winter Park this past fall.  “Being in the Health Leaders program, I faced a fear and a challenge that I’ve always had, and it really helped me overcome it.”

Dr. Lisa Barkley, the College of Medicine’s assistant dean for diversity and inclusion, and a family physician who specializes in adolescent and sports medicine, began Health Leaders when she came to the new medical school in 2010. Her goal: prepare students from medically underserved communities for health careers and bring the economic development promises of Orlando’s emerging Medical City to all of its residents.

In the past three years, the pipeline has grown from Jones High’s Medical Magnet Program to high schools in Osceola County and to Orlando’s Memorial Middle School. Fifteen students signed up to be in the first Jones cohort. Twelve participated for all three years.

“Once you believe that you can do something yourself, then nobody can stop you,” Dr. Barkley said. “I hope they really internalize that they can be doctors, nurses, pharmacists; whatever they want to be, that they really have confidence in themselves and that they can achieve the goals they want to achieve.”

The adage that “it takes a village to raise a child” fit the Health Leaders program, as UCF undergraduate, graduate and medical students and faculty from the colleges of medicine, education, the downtown Center for Emerging Media and community educators worked with the Health Leaders.

Creating a diverse health workforce is imperative given the increasing diversity of Orlando, Florida and the world, Dr. Barkley explains. “More healthcare workers must resemble the patients they treat,” she said, adding that current healthcare disparities occur in part because minorities may feel disengaged by the doctors, nurses and other professionals who should be the most sensitive to their needs. As part of the Health Leaders program, Williams led a research effort that showed 67 percent of Jones High students only received healthcare because they were involved in sports.