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Pandemic Inspires Young Kansans to Pursue Health Care Careers

Maize High graduate Gracie Dean is among a growing number of young adults pursuing health careers.  (Photo courtesy of Maize USD 266)

WICHITA, Kansas — Gracie Dean will graduate from Maize South High School this month, but she’s already working in a field that drew increasing interest during the pandemic.

As a certified nursing assistant at a long-term care facility, she’s among a growing number of young people pursuing careers in health care because of what they’ve witnessed or experienced during COVID-19.

“These nurses have put their lives on the line to help people,” the 17-year-old said. “And that’s just what I aspire to be.”

Some are calling it "the Fauci effect": a new generation of health care workers on a public health mission inspired by people like Anthony Fauci, the face of the White House coronavirus task force.

Medical school applications are up 18% over last year, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts health educators and community health workers will see a 13% increase in jobs between 2019 and 2029.

Kansas State University recently launched the region’s first bachelor of science in public health, and student interest already is high. The program aims to prepare people for jobs such as epidemiologist, public health analyst and wellness coordinator.

The trend mirrors one after Sept. 11, when colleges saw a burst of interest in Middle Eastern studies, Arabic language and homeland security. Other young people sought careers in the military or public safety. Or post-Watergate, when the work of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein launched the careers of would-be investigative journalists.

Lindsay King knows the feeling. A high-schooler during the attacks on 9/11, she joined the U.S. Air Force. She later earned her master’s and doctorate in education and now serves as principal of Maize Career Academy.

She said enrollment in high school medical programs is on the rise. This year, the academy saw a 20% increase in students interested in certified nursing assistant, or CNA, certification. The school also added classes in anatomy and physiology, a foundational course for students pursuing careers in health care.

“Students are going to see how dangerous it is to be on the front lines in health care, but they make the other choice — to be brave and to help others,” King said. “They can see that’s how you make a difference, how you change the world.”

Dean, the Maize South student, earned her CNA certification and works part-time in the memory care department of a nursing home. She experienced the effects of COVID first-hand, working with patients who lost spouses, suffered with isolation or had to go into long-term care because of the virus.

“They love to talk, and I love listening to them,” she said. “Their stories are just incredible, and they matter.”

She plans to attend Wichita State University to continue her nursing education. She ultimately wants to become a trauma nurse.

Lindsey Dean, Gracie’s mother, says the career seems a perfect fit for her oldest daughter.

“This fits with Gracie so easily and so well,” she said. “She just has such a quiet, calm, sweet spirit and I think she’s going to be great at that.”

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Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of Kansas Public Radio, KCUR, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio - focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

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