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Student’s past buoys her future

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Repeated visits to the doctor’s office; back-to-back seizures; prescription upon prescription and treatment upon treatment; so went the childhood of Jazmin Villaviencio. Each doctor visit added to her curiosity about how doctors treat patients, and more specifically, how they deal with issues of the brain. By her late teens, her seizures ended and she was able to live normally. Her experience with doctors put her on a path for a career in medicine.

Villaviencio knew she wanted to study the brain and perhaps become a surgeon after a childhood dominated by epilepsy. As college approached, she learned about the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program. Intrigued by the lure of free tuition and the program’s focus on minority students, Villaviencio submitted an application and was accepted. SMDEP is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation’s largest philanthropy dedicated to health and health care.

“I thought it was a great opportunity, particularly for someone with my background,” said Villaviencio, whose mother is of the Chemehuevi Tribe and father is Mexican. “Because minorities are underrepresented in health care opportunities, I viewed this as my chance.”

Villaviencio joined the SMDEP cohort in 2007 at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. Now, she is a junior at the University of Arizona pursuing her studies to become a doctor, and acquire a master’s in public health.

“The SMDEP training, program director, classmates and mentors helped me determine whether medicine was truly the right career choice.”

With six weeks of focused knowledge under her belt, Villaviencio shifted her initial decision from becoming a surgeon to possibly sports medicine. The six weeks included a designated mentor and intensive science and math classes, strengthening study skills, gaining clinical experience, financial planning workshops and career counseling. The program is at 12 universities across the country, and includes 80 students at each location. SMDEP is interested in expanded outreach to more American Indian students.

According to the Office of Minority Health, some leading causes of death among American Indians are heart disease, cancer, unintentional injuries (accidents), diabetes and stroke. American Indians/Alaska Natives also suffer high risk factors for mental health problems and suicide, obesity, substance abuse, sudden infant death syndrome, teenage pregnancy, liver disease and hepatitis.

Villaviencio, pointing out the seriousness of the chronic diseases that disproportionately impact American Indian communities, pledges to use her SMDEP training to continue her medical education.

“The program gave me the confidence that I could do it – even challenging courses like calculus and physics; we received an overview of these classes so they were not as intimidating. We were all there for the same purpose. It was just a great opportunity of learning and support.”

Since completing the program, she has been an enthusiastic advocate for SMDEP by distributing brochures, and recruiting on campus to make sure minorities are aware of this “amazing program.” Being an SMDEP alum has also given her “clout” among peers and instructors.

“Once people know you’ve gone through the program they tend to give you a little more respect because they know it’s intense. I’ve been exposed to more opportunities as a result of my SMDEP experience.”

The personal rewards linger after the program as well. Villaviencio remains in contact with her dormitory roommate and other classmates, even after completing the program two years ago.

To students considering a career in dentistry or medicine but hesitant because they think medical school courses may be too difficult, Villaviencio said, “There are people out there to help you make it – you will not be alone. I also urge them to use the resources being made available, especially those that are free.”

SMDEP is recruiting more students like Villaviencio. The program wants to secure the participation of more American Indian college freshmen and sophomores and is reaching out to the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes in Mississippi, among others.

SMDEP is gearing up for its 2010 class of students. Applicants can submit online through the program’s Web site from Nov. 1, 2009 through March 1, 2010.