STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

These elementary school students have already been to medical school.

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
Grand Rapids fourth grader Miguel learns to take blood pressure with MSU medical student Katie Ramos.

It’s 8:45 on a Saturday morning, and I’m following along with one of the co-founders of Reach Out to Youth, a long-running program that brings elementary age kids into medical school for a day.

The idea behind Reach out to Youth is that many kids are interested in getting into the medical field, but very few kids get to go inside a medical school.

"If you want to learn a language, you go to a country," Dr. Carolyn King says. "If you want to learn a career, you go to the place where the careers are."

As the event gets underway at Michigan State University's College of Human Medicine in Grand Rapids, I find a medical student named Haben Debessai, sitting cross-legged on the floor of one classroom, showing a group of young girls how to take her blood pressure.

One of the girls in the group is a seven year old named Callan.

"What’d you guys just learn?" I ask her.

"We learned how to use a stethoscope and a blood pressure." 

"So you’re ready to be a doctor now?" I ask. "If I’m sick, you can help me?"

"Mmhmm," Callan says.

In another corner of the room, I check in with a fourth grader named Miguel. 

"So did your mom make you come today, or did you want to come?" I ask.

"I wanted to come," he says. "Because it looks interesting."

Miguel tells me he wants to be a doctor so he can do experiments. 

Helping him on his way is Katie Ramos. She's a first year medical student at MSU, and she helped show Miguel how to use a blood pressure cuff on Saturday. 

"Oh my gosh, it's so much fun," Ramos told me  "I was from a really small home town, so we never had anything like this. So I think it's a really good opportunity for all the kids to come in and actually learn about medicine."  

"Did you want to be a doctor at this age?" I ask her.

"I started wanting to be a doctor when I was 11, so pretty close," Ramos says.

"If you can't see it, you can't be it," says Dr. Carolyn King. "And that's why it's important. That's why you want the little kids to be involved, because then when they see it, they want to be it."

By the end of the day, the kids at the event will get to learn how to take vital signs. They’ll see, and some of them will touch, a pig’s intestine. They’ll learn about the lymphatic system and about sleep.

And one other thing that’s very important to the Reach out to Youth Program, the kids, who are mostly black and hispanic, will meet many medical students and doctors who look like them.

That’s important to Dr. Carolyn King, who’s black and grew up in Detroit. She says she knew she wanted to be a doctor when she was three. But she never saw a black doctor until she was 16.

"If you can’t see it, you can’t be it," King says. "And that’s why it’s important. That’s why you want the little kids to be involved, because then when they see it, they want to be it. They get it. They’re like, ‘Oh, she looks like me, he looks like me. Wow.’"

Reach out to Youth is now in its 27th year. King hasn’t kept up with every student who’s been through the program. But she says she knows at least one who grew up to be a doctor.

And so for the kids who came out this weekend, becoming a doctor is now a less-distant dream. They’ve seen it. They can be it.

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.