Early experience – Health Occupations class gives high schoolers insight into careers

October 2021 Posted in School

By Melissa Wagoner

Health Occupations student, America Blaser, Instructor Geralyn Sheets and former student Vanessa Meraz

Even in high school Vanessa Meraz knew she wanted to go into healthcare.

“Growing up I was very close to my grandparents and my grandma taught us that each of us had a talent that can be used to do good,” Meraz recalled. “I noticed science was the main subject that I enjoyed.” 

With this in mind, Meraz turned her sights on becoming a doctor, enrolling in Silverton High School’s Health Occupations course as an initial step in that direction. And that’s when she made an important discovery – she didn’t want to be a doctor at all.

“During Health Occupations I noticed that nursing would give me a chance to interact with patients,” she said. “I think it’s a good insight into how it’s going to be when you’re working in healthcare.”

Now, enrolled in the University of Portland’s nursing program, Meraz is doing just that – earning her undergraduate degree in nursing, while using the practical skills she gained in high school.

“[At university] we’re all just thrown into the hospital,” Meraz admitted. “But I felt comfortable there. I really feel like we touched on everything [in Health Occupations] and I was able to bring all of my knowledge to UP.”

And that – Health Occupations instructor Geralyn Sheets acknowledged – is precisely the goal of the program, which she has been heading since 2002.

“The greatest benefit is obviously you get a wide base of knowledge and it helps you decide if you really want to be in healthcare and what sector you want to be in,” Sheets said. 

Meraz agreed. “It gives you a good taste of healthcare but also it teaches you a lot about how healthcare isn’t just skills-based.”

The program, which accepts only students in their senior year of high school, is extremely competitive, selecting only 22 of the more than 30 that apply. 

“I only take seniors because they have to be mature,” Sheets said. “They have to apply as a junior and I select students based on grades, attendance, recommendations and I interview them. When I interview students, I want extroverts because you’re not going to learn standing in a corner. I’m looking for motivated individuals.”

Once in the class, the students hit the ground running, utilizing the same textbook as the Chemeketa Community College healthcare students and earning nine hours of college credit. 

“They don’t go out into their rotations until we learn vital signs,” Sheets stated. “They start with vital signs and then we do infection control, viruses, bacteria and parasites. We do handwashing and gloving and we go through scenarios. We also go through HIPAA.”

Then, in non-COVID years, Sheets provides the students a long list of possible rotations including various hospitals, clinics and even veterinarian offices which are asked to rank them in order of interest. 

“I usually tell them to pick eight things and then they go to six for a week at a time,” Sheets explained. “It’s more like feeling it out.”

This combination of time spent in the classroom, learning knowledge-based skills, such as medical terminology, combined with the hours spent shadowing healthcare workers in various fields is, according to America Blaser, another Health Occupations student, invaluable.

“I hope to become a pediatric surgeon,” Blaser said. “This unit especially – it really contributed to what I’m walking into as an adult.”

But the real success of the program can be most fully understood through the alumni statistics. 

“I could go as high as 90 percent that end up in the healthcare field,” Sheets said. For that rare ten percent that decide that healthcare is not for them, the Health Occupations program has an even bigger benefit, she added. 

“We want to keep them from wasting money,” Sheets said. “They’ll sometimes get into college and decide it’s not for them. These students, by being challenged by college classes, they realize this is hard.”

The majority of Sheets’ students come into the class expecting a challenge, and for that Sheets is grateful.

“I think what makes the class so successful is I get good kids from the start,” Sheets said. “I just build on what they’ve learned from previous years and from mom
and dad.”

Looking back, Meraz has the utmost gratitude for the education she gained in Health Occupations and the impact it has already had on her career. 

“It was much more than the healthcare aspect, it was about looking at the big picture,” Meraz said. “It taught me to look at humanity differently – and teamwork. Because you’re on a team with other nurses. It’s not just about skills.”

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