Med-Start: 50 Years Helping Young People Prepare for Their Future in the Health Professions

July 12, 2019

The six-week academic enrichment program at the University of Arizona Health Sciences hosted 50 high school students from 22 Arizona communities this summer in an intensive exploration of health professions careers that will impact the health and lives of

Fifty students from 22 Arizona communities participated in the 2019 Med-Start program, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. (Photo: UAHS BioCommunications, Rick Kopstein)

Fifty students from 22 Arizona communities participated in the 2019 Med-Start program, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. (Photo: UAHS BioCommunications, Rick Kopstein)

TUCSON, Ariz. – For a group of high school students from rural Arizona, the summer of 1969 wasn’t memorable for man’s first walk on the moon or the trek of nearly half a million people to Woodstock, N.Y., for a music festival. They remember that summer as the time they began a journey to careers that would change their lives and the lives of others.

Fifty years ago — just two years after the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson welcomed its first class of medical students — about 20 high school students came to the campus to attend the first Med-Start summer program and learn firsthand what it takes to be a health-care professional.

Since then, 2,273 students have participated in the program. Some became the first in their family to go to college. Many pursued careers in health care and other fields. Others have returned as Med-Start counselors, or volunteered to teach hands-on activities or share their career path experience.

“Med-Start is a six-week summer academic enrichment program for Arizona’s disadvantaged and underserved students entering their senior year of high school who have a strong desire to explore careers in the health sciences,” says Lydia Kennedy, MEd, director of the UA Health Sciences Office of Diversity and Inclusion which sponsors the program with the Arizona Area Health Education Centers (AHEC). “The Med-Start experience is intensive, and includes tours of health-care and research facilities throughout Arizona including Hopi Health Care Center; ‘career chats’ with health care professionals from UAHS, Banner and community; sessions where participants learn to perform basic medical skills such as suturing and dissections and present research projects for academic conference and AHEC regions.”

Another vital experience, Kennedy adds, is getting a head-start on college life, including living in a campus residence hall (under the supervision of counselors and staff) and taking college-level courses in English, chemistry and math for five college credits.

This summer, 50 high school students from 22 Arizona communities — in rural and economically disadvantaged areas and reservations — participated in Med-Start.

Current Med-Start participant Daniella (Dani) Chairez-Pando, a student at Willcox High School, was in her sophomore year when “my mom and I started doing research on summer medical programs and we stumbled upon the Summer Institute on Medical Ignorance research program at the UA College of Medicine – Tucson, which then made me want to participate in more medical programs.” She applied to Med-Start, she says, because “I knew this program would expose me to many careers in the medical field.”

After several weeks in Med-Start, she says “I’m enjoying getting to experience college life and making amazing friends. Also, learning about different careers in health care, which will help me get a head start on my future. I hope to become a physician and return to my hometown to give back to those who are underserved in my community.”

Samantha Hawkins, a student at Desert View High School in Tucson, found out about Med-Start during middle school at a health fair. In her junior year she applied, and a few months later received an email that she was accepted. “Crying with excitement, I woke up my parents and told them the good news. Even though I am not completely done with this program, it has been one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. It has taught me valuable lessons that I will forever use in my life and career in the medical field.”

Hawkins relates one of those lessons: “A doctor who gave a presentation said that he will not be satisfied until he earns the pillow to rest his head when he dies. I knew that he meant he will not rest until he makes a difference. Making an impact is my ultimate goal. That's why I chose medicine.” She wants to attend the UA College of Medicine –Tucson and become a trauma surgeon in order to provide needed health care to families in underprivileged communities. Hawkins dreams of caring for those who have never felt the impact of quality and loving care.

Med-Start’s Magic: Career Success

“Med-Start often is the spark that ignites students’ enthusiasm for a particular career path, whether to become health-care providers or to pursue other professions that significantly impacts the lives of others,” Kennedy notes.

The many stories of career success by youth who have benefited from Med-Start include:

  • Gwen Gallegos, MSN, FNP, is one of the original Med-Start participants in 1969. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in biology from the UA in 1973, Gallegos began teaching junior high school. In 1977, she returned to college, earning a bachelor of science degree in nursing and a masters from the UA College of Nursing.

“As a student at Pueblo High School I was inspired by excellent teachers to expand my interest in biology and the sciences by continuing my education at the University of Arizona. Medicine combined my love of working with people, interest in social services and community service with biology and science,” she recalls. “My mother always wanted to be a nurse but the opportunities were never there for her then. She passed her dream on to me.”

Gallegos’ first nursing position was with St. Mary's hospital. She continues to work with Carondelet Health Network in diabetes education at Holy Cross Hospital in Nogales and with El Rio Community Health Center, where she has been a family nurse practitioner for more than 13 years, working in women’s health and with the homeless population. She and her health team visit shelters and resource centers to bring health-care services to the uninsured, underinsured and disconnected persons in the community.

“I have never regretted my choice of careers and the opportunities it has provided me. I believe health care must recognize the uniqueness of each individual, be available for everyone and meet them where they are. Individual health is dependent on multiple social factors — culture, environment, economics — and the delivery of care must address this. Health is a learned lifestyle, and we must all be a part of this effort.”

  • Carlos R. Gonzales, MD, a 1972 participant, graduated from the UA College of Medicine in 1981. Of Pascua Yaqui descent, he practiced as a family physician for 21 years before joining the college’s faculty. Now assistant dean, curricular affairs; director of the Rural Health Professions Program and Commitment to Underserved People (CUP) Program; and associate professor of family and community medicine, he also works on facilitating the concepts of Traditional Indian Medicine (or TIM), the medicine of North American natives, into the college’s curriculum. He is a leader in addressing the challenges of border health issues.

“Med-Start opened my eyes to the possibilities of becoming a doctor,” says Dr. Gonzales, who recalls that as a student at Pueblo High School in Tucson, “I had an inclination to dream about going into medicine, but it was just a fantasy.” After Med-Start, he became the first in his family to go to college. “Without Med-Start, it wouldn’t have happened. I would have worked in the mines or gone into construction. Med-Start allowed me to address those health-care problems I lived and saw as I was growing up.”

When he speaks to Med-Start participants, Dr. Gonzales often is accompanied by his daughter, Evelinda Gonzales, MD, MPH, a 2002 participant who graduated from the UA College of Medicine – Tucson in 2013 with a joint MD/MPH degree and is assistant professor of family and community medicine at her alma mater.

  • David Lee, BSPharm, a 1974 participant, has volunteered with the program for many years, teaching students about the roles pharmacists fill in the health-care system and providing hands-on instruction in basic compounding skills by having students make their own generic hand-sanitizing gel. He also shares with the students his own career journey.

After earning a Bachelor of Science in Pharmacy from the UA College of Pharmacy in 1977, Lee worked in retail pharmacy, then as a pharmacist with Kino Hospital and the now-Banner – University Medical Center. Now retired, he also was a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacy Practice and Science at his alma mater. The highlight of his career, he says, was his induction into the Arizona Pharmacy Association 2018 Hall of Fame.

“The inspiration to a career in the health field is from my father. In the early 1950s, when anyone in the Chinese community needed help for a medical emergency, my father, who was bilingual and had a car, was called. He would pick them up and take them to a hospital,” Lee tells students. “The inspiration for community service comes from my mother. She was one of first Chinese women to get donations for organizations like the United Way of Tucson.”

  • Steven La Turco, a 1987 participant, became the first in his family to attend college, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in bilingual/bicultural education from the UA. He now is principal of Manzo Elementary School in the Tucson Unified School District. As a high school student, he asked a college recruiter who was on campus “if there were any programs for students interested in the medical field. He mentioned Med-Start. I wanted to go to college, at the time I did not know what I wanted to study but I loved babies and I thought that perhaps I would interested in being a pediatric doctor.” La Turco has been an advocate for Med-Start for more than 13 years, speaking to participants about the many tools Med-Start has to offer. This summer, his daughter, Adelys, is a Med-Start participant.


  • Gabriel Sarah, MD, a 1996 participant, received a Bachelor of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies from the UA in 2001 and a Doctor of Medicine in 2008 from the UA College of Medicine – Tucson. He now is an associate professor at the University of California, San Francisco, where he works as a pediatric anesthesiologist and as associate residency program director for guidance and development for the Department of Anesthesia and Perioperative Care. He also is actively involved in curriculum development for the UCSF School of Medicine, with specialty focus on diversity, equity and inclusion.

“I heard about Med-Start through the counselor at my high school who knew of my interest in medicine. She encouraged me to apply and I felt the experience was something I’d love,” Dr. Sarah recalls. “My parents came to the United States in 1974 from Syria with my older sister in tow. They never could have imagined what their children eventually would accomplish. My parents were both college educated - my dad with a degree in business and my mother a nurse. Unfortunately, lack of access to education, no grasp of the English language, and severe financial hardship did not allow either of them to work in their fields once they came to America. I knew that I had to make things right for my parents - show them that their hard work mattered and was appreciated. Their suffering pushed me to succeed, and I am thankful for their sacrifices.”

  • Carmen Hernandez, FF/CEP, a 1998 participant, is a firefighter and public educator with the Tubac Fire District. In high school, her childhood best friend, Vanessa, convinced Hernandez to take the certified nursing assistant (CNA) course with her and to apply to Med-Start. “It was a wonderful opportunity and experience to see all the different careers paths in the medical field. This helped me to see what interested me more. EMS/Trauma caught my eye!,” she recalls. The first in her immediate family to go to college, she also is the first to be a firefighter/paramedic. For more than 13 years, Hernandez has volunteered with Med-Start, speaking to participants about her career path and guiding them in trauma simulations with paramedics and emergency medical technicians from the Tubac and other fire districts and the Southeast Arizona Area Health Education Center.
  • Raymond Larez, MPH, a 2007 participant, received a master of public health degree from the UA Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health in 2018. Now he is a second-year medical student at the UA College of Medicine – Tucson, and he mentors Med-Start participants on study strategies and health career paths. “Med-Start was a defining moment and experience that propelled me in the direction to pursue higher education,” says Larez. “It was fun, informative and a great experience that became a foundation for me to continue to keep going. It not only gave me skills and knowledge about college, but it also provided me with a support network that continues to be a big part of my academic career.”

    Med-Start’s History

    Med-Start was created in 1969 at the UA College of Medicine to increase the number of health-care professionals in Arizona's rural and economically disadvantaged areas and reservations, through the recruitment and training of students from these regions. The college’s founding dean, Merlin K. “Monte” DuVal, MD, lent his support in 1968 to a group of idealistic and innovative minority medical students who championed the Med-Start cause. Those students included Marcos Duarte, Ruth Smothers and Yuel Tom, all of whom later completed their medical degrees at the UA.

    Today, Med-Start is offered by the UA Health Sciences Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the Arizona Area Health Education Centers. It is a collaborative effort between the UA College of Medicine – Tucson, UA College of Pharmacy, UA College of Nursing and UA Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health and several UA departments. Agencies supporting the program include the Inter-tribal Council of Arizona and other Arizona educational and health-care organizations.

    Med-Start welcomes applications from all students. Students who are of ethnic minority backgrounds (Hispanic, Native American, African American), are first-generation college and/or are economically disadvantaged, especially are encouraged to apply, as these groups are underrepresented in the health-care professions.

    For more information about Med-Start, please visit the UA Health Sciences Office of Diversity and Inclusion website:

    Med-Start 2019: 50 High School Students from 22 Arizona Communities

    Med-Start 2019 included participants from:

    Cina Curley, Chinle High School
    Cooper Scott, Chinle High School

    Oscar Fierro, PPEP Tec Raul H. Castro Learning Center
    Yamileth Medrano, PPEP Tec Raul H. Castro Learning Center

    Amber Moeller, Flagstaff High School

    Fort Apache:
    Ernest Walker, Alchesay High School

    Sogol Omidian, Highland High School

    Grace Dewyer, Cactus High School

    Green Valley:
    Phillip Castro, Sahuarita High School

    Sarya Palencia, St. Mary's Catholic High School

    Breanna Fitch, Maricopa High School

    Danitza Molina, Nogales High School

    Paradise Valley:
    Ethan Tran, Chaparral High School

    Diana Ayala, Arizona School for the Arts
    Anthony Domimguez Osuna, Carl Hayden High School
    Vanessa Esquivel, Verrado High School
    Leilani Gomez, Central High School
    Marilyn Rosas, Barry Goldwater High School

    Rio Rico:
    Daniella Moreno, Rio Rico High School
    Stephanie Munoz, Nogales High School

    San Luis:
    Pedro Marquez, Yuma Catholic High School
    Arlette Rodriguez, San Luis High School

    Second Mesa:
    Shaniqua Campus, Hopi Junior-Senior High School

    Jorge Gonzalez, Kofa High School
    Adriana Medina, Kofa High School

    Tuba City:
    Jordon Nelson, Tuba City High School

    Rebeca Altamirano, Desert View High School
    Daniella Diaz, Pueblo High School
    Samantha Hawkins, Desert View High School
    Mohamad Hesso, Catalina Magnet High School
    Belinda Jimenez, Pueblo High School
    Courtney Joynt, Catalina Magnet High School
    Adelys La Turco, Tucson High Magnet School
    Kayla Martinez, Pueblo High School
    Zaidy Martinez, Cholla High Magnet School
    Aylin Meza, Alta Vista Public Charter High School
    Jacqueline Miranda, Pueblo High School
    Emily Orozco, Vail Academy and High School
    Natalia Padilla , Sunnyside High School
    Steven Robles, Tucson High Magnet School
    Jordan Rocha, Sunnyside High School
    Anayah Romero, Catalina Magnet High School
    Crystal Smith, Thunderbird Academy

    Tanjia Clarkson, Alchesay High School
    Brianna Pinal, Alchesay High School

    Daniella Chairez-Pando, Willcox High School

    Joshua Ketchum, Winslow High School
    Tristan Long, Winslow High School

    Gabriela De La Rosa, Cibola High School
    Kenia Zepeda, Cibola High School

    About the University of Arizona Health Sciences

    The University of Arizona Health Sciences is the statewide leader in biomedical research and health professions training. The UA Health Sciences includes the UA Colleges of Medicine (Tucson and Phoenix), Nursing, Pharmacy, and the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, with main campus locations in Tucson and the growing Phoenix Biomedical Campus in downtown Phoenix. From these vantage points, the UA Health Sciences reaches across the state of Arizona and the greater Southwest to provide cutting-edge health education, research, patient care and community outreach services. A major economic engine, the UA Health Sciences employs nearly 5,000 people, has approximately 900 faculty members and garners $173.5 million in research grants and contracts annually. For more information: (Follow us: Facebook | Twitter | YouTube | LinkedIn | Instagram)