High school students from Central Florida rural communities were urged to seek healthcare careers during a recent tour at the UCF College of Medicine where they were inspired by M.D. student Sharise Richardson: “Persevere and do not be scared. Just go for it.”

The students were from Central Florida’s Area Health Education Center (AHEC) Network, affiliated with Nova University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine. Through service learning projects, the network works to meet the healthcare needs of Florida’s medically underserved communities, including those in rural, minority and urban areas. In addition to service learning, AHEC recruits and educates healthcare workers to treat patients in Florida’s growing medically-needy population. That need is highlighted in the fact that 17 counties in Florida have less than 10 physicians to treat the entire population.

Central Florida’s AHEC service area includes Brevard, Hardee, Highlands, Lake, Orange, Osceola, Polk, Seminole and Sumter counties. Studies show that programs like AHEC’s significantly increase the likelihood that students will enter primary care or practice in rural areas.

High school students toured the College of Medicine’s state-of-the-art facilities, including the Anatomy and Microscopy labs, the Clinical Skills and Simulation Center and the Harriett F. Ginsburg Health Sciences Library, which is 98 percent digital.

“Our kids are from small, rural communities and they have never been exposed to an educational facility like this,” said Jennifer Wolowitz, coordinator for Central Florida AHEC’s continuing education and health career programs. “Touring the College of Medicine was an opportunity for the students to be exposed to all the different types of healthcare fields they could enter in the future.”

The AHEC students who toured the medical school are interested in careers ranging from nursing to dental care, surgery to mental health.

Dillon Johnson, an 11th grader from Bushnell, hopes to become a registered nurse. He especially enjoyed Clinical Skills. “A place where you can actually experience treating patients is a great, great thing,” he said.

Zeel Patel, a 12th grader from Haines City was especially fascinated with the Anatomy Lab. “I’ve never seen anything like this except in the movies,” she said as Sharise explained her first-year experience in the lab. “I really want to come to UCF.”