'It's not just nurses and doctors': Program gives high school students firsthand look at health care careers

As high school graduation season quickly approaches, 33 juniors and seniors from Lake County schools already have been recognized for completing a specialized program that could be an entree into the health care field.

At a ceremony Monday night, graduates of the Penwasciz Health Careers Program at Advocate Condell Medical Center each received a certificate and a pair of scissors.

The name is derived from three things a nurse always carries: a pen, watch and scissors. Created in 1955, the seven-month program has students shadowing health care personnel in clinical and nonclinical roles during two-hour weekly rotations at the Libertyville hospital.

Participants might observe a heart dissection one week and learn from the Libertyville fire department the next. The goal is to expose students as many roles and professions in a hospital setting as possible.

“It's not just nurses and doctors,” said Klaudia Areola, program coordinator. “There are all different careers people can follow.”

Those who completed the program interacted with patients and got a firsthand view of what goes on in a hospital setting and beyond. Five students also received $1,000 scholarships to further their education.

The highly competitive program is voluntary, at no charge to students. Applications are emailed to 16 high schools in Lake County and involve an essay and in-person interview.

“Do we care that they're smart? Yes. More so, we care these students are well-rounded, motivated and kind,” Areola said.

There were 205 applicants for the 2022-2023 program, which returned after ending early in 2019 and being suspended in 2020 and 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“This is a very special group for us,” Areola said.

A simulated birth and cardiac arrest needing CPR and using an automated external defibrillator, for example, were among the experiences this session. Program participants receive CPR training.

Jack Salit, a junior at Mundelein High School, wanted to take the program to see if the medical field was the right fit. His late grandfather was a doctor and great influence, he said.

“I really just like helping people and medicine is one of the best outlets for that,” he said. The program, he added, will help determine what he does and doesn't like to develop a plan going forward.

Liz Flores applied to the program as a junior at Libertyville High School but wasn't accepted. The summer before senior year she spent four weeks in Argentina learning Spanish and visiting hospitals. She reapplied to Penwasciz and was accepted as a senior in 2016-17 and found nursing to be the best fit.

It is an experience that allows students interested in health care to determine their likes and dislikes and find their passion, she said.

Flores now is a “float” nurse in the clinical resource unit at Advocate Condell, working overnights and visiting all the nursing floors.

“When I started Penwasciz, I didn't have a knowledge of how the health care system worked at all. I just wanted to help people,” she said.

Jack Salit, a junior at Mundelein High School, was among 33 high school students who graduated Monday from the Penwasciz Health Careers Program at Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville. Courtesy of Advocate Condell Medical Center
Elizabeth Flores, a 2017 Penwasciz graduate who now works as a nurse at Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, presents a scholarship award Monday night to a fresh crop of graduates. Courtesy of Advocate Condell Medical Center
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