REEDLEY – Local students are getting some extra support in their pursuit of health care careers thanks to scholarships provided by the Sierra Kings Health Care District.
Twenty first-year college students who graduated from high schools in southeast Fresno County received a scholarship for the 2023-24 school year through the Sierra Kings Health Science Pathway Scholarship Program, which began last year.
This year, the district expanded its program from 10 to 20 scholarships, and provided qualifying students from the first round of scholarships an additional award for their second year of study.
“This year we have a total of 26 scholarship recipients that are committed to pursuing a career in the health sciences, and many of which are committed to serving underserved populations like the Reedley-Parlier area,” Chinayera Black Hardaman, CEO of Sierra Kings, said.
The hope with these scholarships is that students will return to the area once they finish their training, helping to address a significant shortage of health care professionals in the Reedley and Parlier areas. Three particular scholarship winners noted by the district included Daisy Lopez-Diaz and Madison Shaw, former students of Reedley High, and Arthuro Diaz-Medrano, a former Parlier High student.
According to the district, Lopez-Diaz is now attending Fresno City College, where she is pursuing the Future Nurses Program. Her interest in the medical field sprouted from her frequent visits to the doctor’s office, as she is hearing impaired. Once she achieves her goal of becoming a surgeon, she intends to return to the community she is from to practice medicine, according to the district.
Shaw, who lives in Yokuts Valley, is beginning her academic career in healthcare at CSU Monterey Bay. Diaz-Medrano, who is initially from Mexico and attended school as an English Language Learner, is now attending UCLA in pursuit of a medical career as a surgeon.
According to the district, Diaz-Medrano recognizes the disparities in healthcare among underserved populations like the local region, and vowed that it will be his priority once he becomes a physician.
HEALTH CARE SHORTAGE
Sierra Kings covers 386 square miles of southeast Fresno County, serving about 44,000 residents, according to the district. It is one of more than 70 health care districts created by the California legislature to address the specific health needs of a given area. The district encompasses Reedley, Parlier and foothills communities including Yokuts Valley, Dunlap and Miramonte.
Black Hardaman said the Reedley-Parlier area is considered a Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA), a state and federal designation that identifies areas or populations experiencing a shortage of primary care physicians, mental health physicians and dental clinicians. HPSA is one of many shortage designations that the government uses to identify areas in need and distribute funding and other resources to these places.
“We qualify for seven of the designations, which basically say that we are a health care desert — that’s my terminology,” Black Hardaman said. “We’ve got a shortage of professionals available to provide services in this area.”
The area also falls under the Medically Underserved Area/Population (MUA/P) designation, which defines a specific geographic area or population subset, such as low-income individuals, that lacks access to primary care services, Black Hardaman said.
As part of Sierra Kings’ mission, the district focuses on primary prevention, which is health care given before any illness occurs in order to promote a person’s general welfare.
“One of the strategies of primary prevention is preventative care from a primary care provider,” Black Hardaman said. “Not in clinics, not on an as-needed basis in an emergency room, but really having a designated primary care provider. With the numbers being what they are in this area, that’s really hard to achieve.”
Black Hardaman said that in addition to wanting to address this shortage, the district looked at how many people in Reedley and Parlier hold associate’s or bachelor’s degrees and found that those rates are very low compared to the state of California and the nation as a whole.
“Not only do we have a shortage, we just don’t have the number of students or residents achieving higher education to set them up to meet that unmet need of health care clinicians,” Black Hardaman said.
The shortages that exist in the area all involve professions that require some form of higher education, whether that be a bachelor’s or doctor of medicine degree. In order to aid students in achieving or pursuing higher education, Black Hardaman said the district decided to focus scholarships on students committed to pursuing a degree in the health sciences pathway.
SUPPORTING STUDENTS’ FUTURES
Sierra Kings finds these students who are committed to this pathway through the Valley Regional Occupation Program (Valley ROP) health sciences courses, Black Hardaman said. Valley ROP instructors will typically hand out applications to high school seniors in their courses during the fall, and those students will go through a thorough application process if they are interested in the scholarship.
Students must show a commitment to their education, be well-rounded and go through an interview process. Black Hardaman said the district wants to make sure the students are truly going to complete their education and serve populations who do not have adequate access to heath care services.
“Our first two years we’ve solely offered our scholarships through the Valley ROP health sciences pathway program, and we’ve really tried to focus on those students that have demonstrated commitment to Valley ROP for multiple years,” Black Hardaman said.
Along with how long a student has been in the Valley ROP health sciences pathway, many of the scholarship recipients have already received their CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant) certifications through Valley ROP by the time they begin college, which is another indicator of their commitment that Sierra Kings looks at. Shaw, Diaz-Medrano and Lopez-Diaz participated in Valley ROP’s CNA program before pursuing their college careers.
Sierra Kings is also considering opening up the scholarship to non-traditional college students, meaning people who are not immediately out of high school. Those individuals would still need to demonstrate commitment to the health sciences pathway, but could be people currently working in the health care field as a CNA or technician who want to go back to school, Black Hardaman said.
The Sierra Kings Health Science Pathway Scholarship Program provides first-year college students with a $1,000 scholarship, given out in split payments of $500. Students are able to use the funds in any way that aids their pursuit of higher education, whether that be for tuition, purchasing textbooks or even gas money for students commuting to campus.
“Offering these scholarships is the monetary piece that the district offers, but we also offer ongoing mentoring and coaching to each of these cohorts, to make sure there’s a hedge of protection around these students as they try to maneuver through college,” Black Hardaman said.
Black Hardaman said that many of the scholarship recipients are first-generation students, meaning their parents either never attended a higher education institution or do not have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Because of this, Sierra Kings also organizes networking events and facilitates peer-to-peer communication between scholarship recipients to give them more than just financial support.
While a student may receive support from their families, they are still “venturing out in a way that their elders have not,” Black Hardaman said.
“Without having any experience or exposure to higher education, (families) are not always able to offer (students) that guidance and support that’s necessary towards college success,” Black Hardaman said.
As they see their scholarship recipients succeed in higher education, Sierra Kings is also looking to build their capacity to offer first- and second-year scholarships for area students committed to the health sciences pathway.
Recipients of the Sierra Kings Health Science Pathway Scholarship currently attend Reedley College, Fresno City College and schools in the California State University and University of California systems.