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INNOVATIONS/PROGRAMS

Breaking Through to Worlds of Success

It

by Jeff Simmons was a classroom exercise that prompted Timothy García to consider a new career. As a middle school student, he was involved in a program called Breakthrough New York. His family had pursued his enrollment because he was a high-achieving student, but they felt his academic trajectory could use extra support, both hands-on and financial. He recalls wanting to “take charge” of his academic success.

Amanda Hernández with a Breakthrough New York student

García, who grew up in the Inwood-Washington Heights section of Manhattan, spent most of two summers in Breakthrough programs, and then during the regular school year traveled twice weekly to an Upper East Side school for tutoring after school, homework help and cultural enrichment programming. One day, he nervously edged to the front of his class to give a presentation. The exercise: to deliver a 10-minute presentation on a subject. His chose to talk about how bacteria in soil break down nutrients, thereby enriching plants. Momentary jitters turned into exhilaration. Even then, he

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recalls his breakthrough moment. “I really just wanted to be on the other side of the classroom,” the 21-year-old said. For the last two summers he did just that. Now a senior at Middlebury College in Vermont, he spent the summer as a Breakthrough New York teacher intern, and returned to the program this summer. García taught ninth-grade literature to students that were poised to enter the ninth grade, working with two groups, both of which consisted of 14 students. Each day, he made sure to consider every individual student’s needs and progress. “You need to make sure you don’t burn out being able to give every student an equal amount of attention and that no student is left out. You must be able to reach everyone,” he said. “It’s been amazing. They challenge you in every single way. The Breakthrough program teaches you how to be a professional, how to work on a team, how to deal with stress.” During the program, García learned lessons on the struggle many teachers face in meeting the needs of a diverse group of students, and equally attending to all. “You appreciate how much work teachers are doing, how much work it takes to put the program together,” he said. “You are preparing lesson plans, organizing special events. I definitely learned about sustainability.” Like García, the 39 other students who interned at Breakthrough New York this past summer hailed from some of the most prestigious colleges across the country, including Columbia, Cornell, Bryn Mawr, Harvard and Yale. The internship has been consistently listed among Princeton Review’s Top Ten Internships, along with the White House, the U.S. Supreme Court and MTV. Each year, the number of applications has increased. Last year Breakthrough received about 550 applications, and this year, that number grew by about 100. About 63 percent of the teacher interns are from underrepresented groups, including Hispanic, African-American and Asian-American. This year, about 15 percent self-identified as Hispanic. Teacher interns are selected based on academic accomplishment, leadership experience and ability to learn teaching techniques as demonstrated during an interview process. Before they can even step in front of a classroom, the interns


To date, the nonprofit’s students-teaching-students model has shepherded 400 students from middle school to college. Amanda Hernández is a shining example of the program’s success. Enrolled in its first class in 1999, the middle schooler found herself able to master topics that were heretofore foreign to her, and enjoyed learning from young teachers (the program also engages high school students as tutors). “I found myself engaged in a learning environment that was not only supportive and inspiring but diverse in its vision and style of teaching,” Hernández said. As a result of the support, she went on to attend The Julliard School’s pre-college program, LaGuardia High School of Music and Art, and then – the first in her family to attend college – Columbia University, where she majored in neuroscience and psychology with a pre-medical studies concentration. Her experience echoes that of a growing number Breakthrough NewYork teacher interns participate in team-building activities of her classmates – she went on to become a teacher intern in 2005. “That summer was one of the most spend two weeks undergoing intensive, training sessions. transformative experiences of my undergraduate career,” she “We look for the top performing students at the most com- said. Hernández taught biology and chorus, and served as a petitive colleges,” said Rhea Wong, Breakthrough New York’s role model and educator. executive director. “Because we receive so many outstanding “I became aware of the vast disparities present within our applications we are able to be very selective, so not only are education system,” she said. they outstanding students but also are reflective of the diversity Hernández is now in her fifth year as a dual degree candiof our students.” date at Yale University’s MD-PhD program where she is pursuThe teacher interns, Wong said, have demonstrated success ing a degree in neuro-immunology, ultimately entering into a in their academic careers, with resumes that detail the extent career as an academic neurologist. of leadership roles they have assumed. “These are students who are ready and willing and able to learn. You see the difference between people who rise to a challenge and those who are discouraged by obstacles,” said Wong. A nonprofit, Breakthrough New York was founded as Summerbridge at The Town School in 1999. Since then, Breakthrough New York has grown in size, and in 2009, it became an independent not-for-profit organization in New York State. The organization makes a six-year commitment to guide students from middle school – actually, from the day they complete sixth grade – through high school graduation, providing homework help, cultural enrichment opportunities, tutoring, SAT prep, organized college visits and interview coaching. Upon entry into a four-year college, students become Breakthrough alumni and continue to access Breakthrough New York executive director Rhea Wong (left) guiding students resources such as internship and job opportunities. Breakthrough students – nearly 100 percent persons of color, including 38 percent who identify as Hispanic – are high-achievShe also is a graduate assistant at Yale’s Latino Cultural ing, but often economic and geographic odds force them into Center where she works with many first-generation college lower performing classrooms in the city, leading their families to students in mentorship and advisory capacities. turn to Breakthrough for support in continuing on a high-achievAnd she continues to teach. During her summers she ing path that leads to a selective four-year college. taught biology and career development to undergraduate pre-

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medical students at Yale University’s Summer Medical and Dental Education Program. “My experience as a Breakthrough New York student and teacher has never left me,” she said. “I have never forgotten to reach out to my younger counterparts and help guide them

A student tutor assists a Breakthrough New York student

through the academic pipeline.” That tradition continued this summer, when a number of the teacher interns were former Breakthrough students. “Every time someone asks me about my summer I tell them it was the best summer of my life,” says Reginald Hutchins, a 20-year-old junior at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga. As a middle school student himself, Hutchins participated in the Breakthrough program in his hometown of Atlanta. Last summer, he interned in New York City’s Breakthrough program, an experience that prompted him to return again this year. The summer proved to be an intensive, exhilarating triumph of hard work, diligence and persistence. Before entering the classroom, teacher interns undergo several weeks of instruction. “We went through these really long training modules. It’s all theory, what may happen, what might happen. Stepping into the classroom was rough because it was like 17 children staring at you expecting you to teach them something,” said Hutchins. He immediately overcame any initial anxiety, as he and a fellow teacher intern he was paired with broke down lessons into manageable tasks, and worked individually with students, which he said were enthusiastically proactive. “The Breakthrough community is like no other community. We have this thing where we say that after you leave Breakthrough you go through withdrawal,” he said. “It’s an unparalleled experience.” As the program concluded, he received Breakthrough’s Maureen Yusuf-Morales Teaching Excellence Award, which recognizes one intern at each site whose performance as an instructor and role model excelled beyond expectations. “Everyone in the Breakthrough community is really invested not only in the students but in us, so that we can become the best teachers that we can be,” he said.

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Shortly after returning to Atlanta after his first summer internship in New York, Hutchins changed his major to sociology, and then this year he switched his minor to educational studies. His experience is emblematic of the impact that Breakthrough New York is having not just on its student charges but its interns as well: 83 percent of its teachers have gone into teaching or public service, with the majority of that group pursuing careers as teachers. “We are igniting both the love of learning and the love of teaching. For a lot of them, this provides a pathway that they didn’t necessarily know was something they wanted to pursue,” said Wong, who was a graduate of a Breakthrough program in San Francisco. “Even if teacher interns decide not to pursue a career in education, we feel it’s important they are exposed to the most pressing issues in education.” Additionally she said that about 15 percent of the interns are former Breakthrough students, a rate that is steadily increasing. “This speaks to a culture of giving back,” Wong said. “They internalize the message that it is their duty to give back because of what they have been given.” While Hutchins received the award for his work at the Manhattan site, the award in Brooklyn went to Johnneca Johnson, a 21-year-old senior majoring in early childhood education at the University of Cincinnati and a former Breakthrough student. “My first day in the classroom, I went over the rules with my students and got to know them,” she said. “They made me feel very comfortable, and after that it was all uphill from there.”

Breakthrough New York teacher interns undergo training

Johnson witnessed the drive many of these students harbor from that first day in class. This was matched by the devotion of her fellow teacher interns, and the staff, she said. “I feel like I have 30 new best friends,” she said of the teacher interns. “I chose New York City because I heard they were a welloiled machine and were leading all of the other Breakthrough sites,” she said. “I have never met a more motivated and passionate staff. They really want the teachers to be the best of the best. They want the whole program to succeed. It was a great experience to know that the people above me were working 10 times as hard as I am.” Her experience is already paying off. She has now been


accepted into the Teach for America program in Jacksonville, Fla. Her ultimate goal is to return to New York City, and Brooklyn specifically. “I really want to come back to Breakthrough New York and help,” she said. “The connections we built with students and teachers and staff will last forever. It’s going to be a lifetime relationship.” In the end, Breakthrough New York has changed career

trajectories and mindsets. “Going through the Breakthrough summer you definitely learn about yourself, how you work with others, how you feel when tested and when you face adversity,” García said. “You learn that not everything is easy. Sometimes you fail, and that in itself makes you stronger. It’s a very challenging summer, and you grow as a person.”

Scholars’ Corner With the U.S. in the early stages of overhauling the health care system, there lies a looming doctor shortage in the next decade. The American Association for Medical Colleges (AAMC) predicts a shortage of 91,500 doctors by the year 2020. However, there is another shortage that should not be overlooked. There currently is a disparity in the racial and ethnic diversity in medicine. Although small improvements have been made in recent years, Hispanics are still greatly underrepresented in medicine. The American Medical Association (AMA) reports less than 3 percent of U.S. doctors are Hispanic. The percent of Hispanics in academic faculties in medical schools is just as dismal, with only about 4 percent. The AAMC emphasizes that Hispanic medical students are more likely to serve underrepresented areas than non-Hispanic students. Additionally, the AAMC highlights that Hispanic academic medicine faculty members are more likely to conduct research in Hispanic populations than their non-minority counterparts. With Hispanics projected to increase to 29 percent of the total U.S. population in 2050, there is a need for efforts to increase Hispanic medical student admission and academic faculty positions at medical schools in the U.S. As a student who is pursuing a career in academic medicine, these numbers are not very encouraging. There are already numerous hoops that hopeful pre-medical students must clear in order to get accepted into a medical school in the U.S. For a Hispanic student, these hoops often seem to get smaller and higher. However, many medical schools have recently recognized that a student’s potential success as a physician cannot be measured by academic performance alone. These schools have opted to use the idea of the “road-traveled” or the encompassing experience of an applicant. This has indeed led to an increase in the enrollment of Hispanics in the past decade; however, there is still much work to do. In addition, efforts to recruit Hispanics into academic medicine are clearly lagging. So how do we get more Hispanics to apply to medical school and become interested in academic medicine? My research opportunities have played a defining role in my interest in academic medicine. I believe there is a clear need to establish and engage Hispanic students in research opportunities during undergraduate, graduate, and medical school. Along with increasing the acceptance of Hispanic students, medical schools should aim at increasing efforts to diversify the faculty to be more representative of the U.S. population. As an American Association for Hispanics in Higher Education (AAHHE) fellow, I had the wonderful opportunity to engage with Hispanic graduate students and faculty from a variety of disciplines. My experience during the AAHHE conference validated my goal to pursue academic medicine and diversify medicine in the United States. At first I thought that I would have to take on this great endeavor alone. However, I now know that I have the support from my AAHHE family to take on the problems of today and tomorrow. By Alberto Aguilera PhD student, Graduate Group in Nutritional Biology, Program in International and Community Nutrition, University of California, Davis.

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