Story by Maria Moreno

Western University of Health Sciences has been awarded a $330,000 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant to host the Summer Health Professions Education Program (SHPEP) for the fifth year in a row.

The WesternU SHPEP team, comprised of 43 WesternU faculty from six colleges, 20 WesternU students and six SHPEP program alumni, is ready to continue to empower future generations of health professionals. With the support of the Center for Academic Community Engagement department, the team will be developing and delivering an intensive case-based curriculum for undergraduates from across the nation.

Leading into the fifth year, WesternU SHPEP will continue to provide opportunities for rising college sophomores and juniors to join the following health professions tracks: medicine, dental medicine, optometry and physical therapy. The program is administered by a National Program Office with oversight and staffing from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) and American Dental Education Association (ADEA).

Due to COVID-19 and necessary precautionary measures, all SHPEP sites will run 100% virtually in summer 2021. The team will take all the knowledge and feedback learned from 2020 to provide an unforgettable experience to our future SHPEP scholars. Applications opened Nov. 1, 2020 and will close Feb. 5, 2021.

Learning Curve: SHPEP’s 2020 Virtual Experience

In summer 2020, WesternU was one of 12 institutions nationwide that hosted SHPEP as a virtual experience. SHPEP is a stipend-supported enrichment program focused on improving access and resources to financially disadvantaged families and groups underrepresented in the health professions. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the program switched to an online teaching format lasting four weeks instead of the traditional six weeks on campus, running June 20 to July 18. WesternU decided that the program was crucial to ensure that the next generation of future health professionals did not miss an opportunity to further advance their interest in health careers. In 2020, WesternU SHPEP welcomed 80 scholars supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and three scholars supported by WesternU.

Screenshot of SHPEP scholars create teeth impressions during their afternoon rotation.

Dental SHPEP scholars create teeth impressions during their afternoon rotation.

WesternU continues to be proud of being part of the continued efforts to increase diversity in the future health workforce, yet the team is most grateful for the opportunity to learn and build relationships with these amazing students through their own personal stories, said Manager for Pipeline Programs Maria Moreno.

“We continue to be inspired by their determination to pave a successful path for themselves and for allowing WesternU to be part of their journey,” Moreno said. “The SHPEP program is a rejuvenating experience that reignites the desire of the all the participating WesternU team to be the positive change in the community. We thank all our SHPEPers for reminding us why we are passionate about community health and success.”

SHPEP scholars practice their suturing skills.

“I love working with the program because of its mission, but I also have very selfish reasons for being there. Medicine is absolutely my calling, but you can get burned out pretty quickly in medical school,” said College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific (COMP) Class of 2022 student Caleb Cato, MS. “Getting to be around a group of students who have so much passion to learn more about medicine and still get excited every afternoon to experience more helps motivate me through another year.”

In 2020, to ensure the participating scholars were able to actively engage in a virtual setting, the WesternU SHPEP team collaborated with WesternU IT to procure loaner laptops for all scholars, to increase technology equity for successful participation and completion of the program. The purchase of the laptops was made possible through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. In addition to the laptops, each student was shipped their white coats, suture kits and lab materials to increase the professional hands-on experience.

“In hindsight, the virtual classroom is better suited to cultivate the lines of communication necessary to maintain interstate relationships, which is necessary for SHPEP students. Being online forced us to normalize text messaging, ZOOM calls and Instagram DM’s to stay in contact,” said College of Dental Medicine Class of 2022 student Steven Velasco, MS. “Now that the program is over, there are better relationships with the students, in part, because it’s already normal to keep in contact with the students outside of the traditional classroom setting.”

SHPEPers unwind and share music with each other.

In addition to creating an intensive curriculum, it was important to ensure that the scholars built a sense of community. The Resident Peer Advisors, former SHPEP scholars from past years, cultivated social activities to allow students to bond. Activities such as music battles, game nights, and group study sessions were utilized to bring students together and share other attributes of themselves. Scholars also had opportunities to join in a variety of career workshops.

“From curated music socials to fireside chats, the SHPEP scholars and my team shared stories, captivated minds, and broadened worldviews,” said College of Optometry student and former SHPEP scholar Crystal Sin. “Regardless of the online setting, we established understanding and bonds because we were willing to listen and willing to learn.”

“WesternU may not be as widely known as some of the other SHPEP institutions, but the experience WesternU provides to SHPEP scholars garners top marks,” said WesternU College of Dental Medicine Dean Steven Friedrichsen, DDS. “WesternU students work peer-to-peer with SHPEP scholars so they understand what it is like to be a health professions student.

“The WesternU faculty participate in the summer on top of their already packed schedules. We put a lot of effort into student success,” Friedrichsen added. “The quality of education we provide, and then the very individualized approach in essentially taking the students under our wings and making them feel like they’re professional students.”

“The context of the COVID-19 allowed for SHPEP 2020 to highlight a global health pandemic, examine how health disparities have been heightened, and demonstrate the students’ potential roles as future healthcare providers,” said College of Pharmacy Assistant Professor Josephine Aranda, PharmD. “It provided an opportunity to highlight the importance of safe and evidence-based medication use and the roles pharmacists play in that regard. Although SHPEP 2020 was done virtually, all these reasons made it so unique and special.”

All of WesternU’s SHPEP scholars said they would recommend the program to friends and relatives. View WesternU SHPEP Yearbook on the SHPEP website:

After morning curriculum, SHPEPers take pictures with their white coats for the SHPEP yearbook.