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high schoolers

High schoolers make a difference through ACTION Program

Launched in 2016, the Appalachian Career Training in Oncology (ACTION) Program is on a mission to foster the future of cancer care in Kentucky. Three years after its creation, the program took the next step forward in nurturing the career interests of students interested in oncology – expanding its offerings to include high school students in addition to college undergraduates.

The program offers students from Kentucky’s Appalachian region an opportunity to gain hands-on experience within the research, clinical, outreach and education areas of cancer and prepares them to pursue a career in health and medicine.

Welcoming high school students

New in 2019, invited high school applicants were able to participate in two consecutive summer sessions with the program on the University of Kentucky campus. In its first year, the high school cohort welcomed 20 students to participate in career-building activities with a variety of researchers, lecturers and mentors.

High school students coming into the program are met with a crash course in cancer biology, epidemiology and treatment. Throughout the summer, students engaged with all phases of research and clinical care through workshops and lectures and by shadowing Markey’s doctors and healthcare providers. Attendees will also become published authors in an upcoming compilation of student essays reflecting on their unique relationship with cancer having grown up in an area where cancer is at its worst.

Students also had the opportunity to come together and reflect on all of their work during an end-of-summer symposium, an event that may have been the highlight of the experience, ACTION Program Director Nathan Vanderford, PhD, MBA, said.

“Our symposium and poster session may have collectively been the most impactful event of the summer,” Vanderford said. “The students worked really hard on their posters. And, of course, they worked on their research throughout their time on campus. They were proud to show people what they had been working on, and they should be.”

Vanderford said getting experience at such a young age is crucial in helping students develop their interests and start thinking about their future.

“Coming here and having this first five weeks of independence gives us a unique time to help them decide what they want to do,” he said.

Getting that first impression of life on an academic campus goes a long way toward preparing students for success, ACTION Program Coordinator Chris Prichard said. Prichard had the chance to get to know this small group of students during their time on campus and build a valuable mentoring relationship.

“It’s great having that one-on-one interaction during the summer,” Prichard said. “It’s very rewarding to work with a student and know that you are making an impact, changing their life for the better.”

Preparing for the future

Shedding light on the resources available to help these students pursue an oncology career is a major goal of the ACTION program. Students learn about applying for scholarships, testtaking practices and overall financial literacy. These areas needed particular attention due to the disadvantages that many residents of the Appalachian region face when making educational decisions after high school.

“Giving students the tools to become change agents in their own families and communities is one of the ultimate goals of the program.” Nathan Vanderford, PhD, MBA

“Chris and I spend a lot of time visiting schools throughout this region,” Vanderford said. “One student’s mom was a teacher as we presented one day, and she was telling us about the huge financial barrier our students face related to attending college. Even I didn’t totally appreciate their level of barrier before. We keep that in mind now so we can show the students ways to go to college with financial aid opportunities.”

Building on their first summer with the program, attendees will stay engaged with ACTION on a monthly basis throughout the year. Ahead of their second summer, students will participate in fun trips, including a visit to the Louisville Slugger Museum, as well as formal educational events, such as check-ins with their research labs.

Agents of change

While attendees continue to develop their own professional skills and interests, the program encourages them to bring the information they’ve learned back home where there are alarming rates of cancer incidence. In the end, Vanderford hopes the program can make a tangible impact on lives for both students and their communities.

“Giving students the tools to become change agents in their own families and communities is one of the ultimate goals of the program,” Vanderford said. “There are examples where participants have parents who use tobacco products, and it’s their goal to get them to stop smoking, dipping, chewing, etc. If we can just reduce tobacco use, if we could cut that out today, in the next 15 to 20 years, that would have a huge impact on cancer rates. Promoting that mindset with these kids will make a difference.”

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