NEWARK, NJ -- As National Hispanic Heritage Month came to a conclusion on Tuesday, a group of Newark students closed out the period of cultural recognition with a series of educational workshops offered as part of the Students Health Sciences Day at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. 

Organized in partnership with University Hospital, the community outreach event hosted Latinx students from Park Elementary School to foster their interest in the medical field while their parents received free health screenings.

For a population whose health outcomes are disproportionately shaped by factors like language barriers, lack of access to preventative care and lack of insurance, resources like specially tailored health fairs can make a world of difference.

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Isabel Garcia Lopez, a participating parent at the event, knows the value of community-focused health resources from her experience as a nurse in her native Cuba. 

“It’s so important that we know what we can do even if we don’t have medical insurance. You get reference on how to lead a healthy lifestyle and information for how we can help our children,” she said. 

Nearly 18 percent of the Latinx population in the United States is not insured, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. NJMS and University Hospital’s role as a health care provider is coupled with the additional challenge of ensuring all Newark residents are served equally. 

Shereef Elnahal, president and CEO of University Hospital, said the challenge is one he welcomes with confidence. Restoring the Hispanic community’s trust in the health care system through outreach initiatives helps to reinforce local health care providers as an accessible source of support. 

“We have a duty to deliver to the community and do good on our promise to provide quality medical care to everyone, regardless of socioeconomic or cultural circumstances,” Elnahal said.

The physicians and health care professionals leading Student Health Sciences Day added that giving students a space to learn and discover their interests is essential to increasing diversity in the medical field. The Park Elementary students spent the day exploring activities including an anatomy lab, a suture station, an ultrasound demonstration and a laparoscopic surgery simulation.

“As a Puerto Rican physician, it has always been important to me to give back to my community,” said Melissa Alvarez-Downing, an attending physician at NJMS and lead organizer for the event. “Meeting the community with cultural sensitivity and inclusion helps us foster a pipeline for future generations of Latinx medical professionals.”

Mariliana Alamez, 11, said the most memorable part of playing doctor for a day was holding a human brain in her hands. 

“It made me realize that the brain isn’t naturally red like how you see on TV,” the Park Elementary School student said. “It’s really interesting seeing where the blood flows. I see the body differently now.” 

NJMS also seized the opportunity to scout for its Science Medicine and Related Topics (SMART) program, a pre-college enrichment program designed to expand the presence of underrepresented students in health professions. The program focuses on youth development and academic excellence to give students the knowledge and experiences necessary to maximize their potential for success, according to NJMS research associate Mercedes Padilla-Register. 

“I’m a product of Newark, and I know that when I was young, I didn’t have anyone to talk to me about careers in medicine. I want them to have the exposure not only to careers in medicine but all the different options available in the health care field,” she added.