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up next Julie Calahan

Julie Calahan

Health Science Explorers

Exposing High School Students to Health Care Careers

The ongoing shortage of health care workers is an issue across Nebraska. Fourteen of the state’s 93 counties don’t have a primary care physician. All counties, except Douglas and Lancaster, are designated as shortage areas for at least one type of primary care. Fields such as occupational therapy and audiology face continuing shortages, and more nurses are needed in rural areas.

Roughly 20% of the state’s nurses, dentists and physicians are over the age of 60 and nearing retirement. And in rural areas, it’s critical for more students to go into health careers—and then come back and serve that area. Many rural residents have to drive to get quality health care services.

“There’s a lot of job security in health care, and we know that’s not going away. In fact, the need continues to grow. We need more people to practice health care in rural Nebraska,” said Julie Calahan, coordinator of UNK’s Health Science Explorers program.

“There’s a lot of job security in health care, and we know that’s not going away. In fact, the need continues to grow.”

— Julie Calahan

The good news: there are countless opportunities for young people to pursue these high-wage, high-impact careers. Through the Health Science Explorers program, Calahan is working to introduce more middle and high school students to health care careers and educational paths.

A Personal Start to a Health-Centered Career

Calahan is no stranger to rural areas or to health care. She was raised in Mitchell, Nebraska—a town of nearly 1,800 in Scotts Bluff County. Her husband grew up in Morrill, a nearby town of under 1,000 residents. She went to UNK and graduated with a degree in business; although they initially moved to Houston, they came back to Nebraska—first living in North Platte, where Calahan worked as a nursing home admissions director.

She eventually transitioned to Great Plains Health, where she oversaw the adult and teen volunteer program. As she trained, mentored and led the volunteers, her passion for health care blossomed. Calahan created monthly events that brought students into the hospital, engaged them with departments and offered educational opportunities, like lunch-and-learns where different providers would speak to them.

teen volunteering at a hospital
Calahan’s time overseeing a teen volunteer program at a hospital in North Platte prepared her to connect young people to health careers at UNK.

Anesthesiologists, ER nurses and surgical techs explained the education required for their careers, and department tours allowed students to imagine themselves in various careers. It was the perfect preparation for running the Health Science Explorers program.

Connecting Students to All the Options

UNK’s Health Science Explorers program helps meet the health care workforce demand by connecting with Nebraska students earlier in their academic careers.

The program starts in middle school, when seventh and eighth graders are invited to campus for Health Science Explorers Days that introduce them to the possibility of pursuing a professional career in this area. Things get more in-depth from there. High schoolers can attend career fairs and other campus events, allowing them to enroll at UNK with a clearer picture of their preferred path.

The day-long summer camps in June, July and August give both middle schoolers and high schoolers a chance to learn more about health care careers and UNK programs while participating in hands-on activities. Most camps start at 9 a.m. and end around 1 p.m.; UNMC and UNK faculty and health care providers from the Kearney area are present at the camps, along with the students. Camps are capped at 60 students so each attendee is ensured quality interactions.

student with medical scissors at health camp
The Health Science Explorers summer camp gives high schoolers a chance to learn more about health care careers and UNK programs.

Curriculum changes with every camp; past activities include cow heart dissection, blood typing, exercises on how to stop bleeding wounds, nutritional assessment and planning, a case study on a pediatric fracture, and intubating and ventilation. The activities are highly educational and also include a hands-on component.

At one camp last June, high school students studied the circulatory system using beef hearts and lungs, practiced physical therapy exercises and gave suturing a try. There was also a panel discussion featuring area providers from a variety of medical professions.

“The goal is to generate increased interest in the health care field and expose students to career opportunities,” Calahan said.

A Career Fair They'll Never Forget

In September 2020, nearly 500 high schoolers from across the state landed on the UNK campus for the annual Health Careers Fair, the largest event hosted by the department. Students weren’t the only ones who bussed or drove in—the group also included counselors, teachers and administrators.

Students and staff from nearly 100 schools were able to meet with employers and professional school representatives while learning more about UNK’s academic programs. They participated in breakout sessions focusing on medical laboratory science, exercise science, nutrition, mental and behavioral health and nursing.

students at health camp learning physical exercise
All camp activities are highly educational and include a hands-on component.

One of the schools, Wilcox-Hildreth Public School, offers anatomy and physiology, plus a two-year health science class. The Health Careers Fair expanded on their students’ classroom lessons by giving them a chance to explore a variety of careers while networking with professionals.

Connecting Employers With Future Employees

The Health Careers Fair is also the perfect place for employers to connect with their future talent pool, get their name out, and help students better understand the options that exist in healthcare.

“The demand for health care workers extends well beyond doctors and nurses,” said Calahan. “For example, you can be a physical therapist, but there is also a need for physical therapy assistants. You can be a surgery nurse, but scrub techs are needed as well. There are so many levels within departments that students don’t know about. The career fair gives us the opportunity to talk about a wide range of careers and show what they do.”

The demand for health care workers extends well beyond doctors and nurses. As an example, students can become a physical therapist, but there is also a need for physical therapy assistants.

Events like this are part of UNK’s plan to create a talent pipeline that encourages Nebraska students to study and work in the state. “There’s a continuous need for people to work in these fields,” Calahan said. “Many hospitals and clinics are struggling to find staff.”

Creating a Clearer Picture of Potential Career Paths

UNK also has residential learning communities for health science students, who receive additional support and guidance as they transition to college. This includes mentorship, career exploration and academic and professional development experiences such as job shadowing, networking and internships. There is even a residential cohort.

Students who choose a professional program offered by the University of Nebraska Medical Center can apply for the Kearney Health Opportunities Program (KHOP), which provides full-tuition scholarships to UNK and guaranteed admission into UNMC, assuming all requirements are met. KHOP is available to students from rural Nebraska who are committed to practicing there. One of UNK’s goals is to recruit health students to consider working in rural, underserved areas of the state by providing clinical experiences in these communities during their training.

“At the end of the day, if they learned something new or have a newfound interest in a health science career, then it’s been a success.”

— Julie Calahan

Calahan wants to see students transition from UNK to UNMC, then into a job somewhere in the state. “We want to keep them here,” she said. “There are so many rural areas across Nebraska that need people to fill these roles.”

The Health Science Explorers program is just one step. Many more steps are needed to better assist the rural parts of our state. UNK and UNMC are partnering together on expanding joint programs in the future—with the goal of educating more healthcare workers; doctors, physical therapists, nurses and others who will ultimately serve rural Nebraska.


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