Juan Robles, M.D., was just a kid when he immigrated from Honduras to the United States. He was the son of a single mother, didn't speak English and lived in an underserved community in the Bronx, N.Y. None of that stopped him from being the first person in his family to attend college.
As a teenager, Robles volunteered as a translator for patients at the Einstein Community Health Outreach (ECHO) clinic, earning valuable experience through his exposure to this health care setting.
"To become a physician, I had to have role models, support and opportunities," said Robles, an attending physician at Montefiore Health System and assistant professor of family and social medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. "In the physicians at ECHO, I found mentors and inspiration. That's the key for my students. They are just like I was. They have limited resources and come from communities with limited role models. Students keep coming here because they find resources and mentors."
The students Robles is referencing participate in the Bronx Community Health Leaders(www.bxchleaders.com) program he co-founded with Einstein student Julissa Delacruz in 2014. The goal is to diversify the health care workforce by providing volunteer opportunities, professional development and peer support to college students and recent college graduates.
At a federally qualified health center with roughly 40 clinicians and 13,000 patients, students have plenty of opportunities to get involved, from teaching English classes and facilitating wellness classes to performing administrative tasks such as helping people enroll in the clinic's patient portal.
During its first year of operation, the program had fewer than 10 participants. Even without funding, it grew to include 25 students in its second year and 40 the following year. In 2017, Robles' pipeline program earned a $1 million, five-year grant(www.einstein.yu.edu) from the Health Resources and Services Administration and now has expanded to encompass 60 students.
All of the program's participants are interested in pursuing health care careers, Robles explained, with roughly 85 percent of them wanting to be physicians. And although he serves as a mentor and director, Robles said the program is largely run by students, who develop its policies, make decisions and select participants.
"They really have been empowered to take ownership," he said. "I'm the role model, but the level of work they do for the program is amazing."
The program has been around long enough that the next step in its evolution is developing an alumni network. Robles said those who have moved on to medical school and other training programs come back to share their experiences with the next group of students.
"We try to provide opportunities for young men and women and help them find others who will support their careers," Robles said. "They can find that spark that helps them reach their goals."