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They all work in the medical field now and they all have another thing in common — their educational journey began in schools throughout the Roanoke Valley.

That early education was crucial, said Jalen Miller, an operating room nurse at Duke Regional Hospital in Durham and a 2011 graduate of KIPP Pride High.

“Your journey starts now,” said Miller, one of the panelists at Thursday’s Cultural Learning and Universal Enrichment Series at Halifax Community College. “It doesn’t start after high school. It starts now. Start preparing for your future, for what you want to do. It starts now.”

Miller said his best advice is for students to, “Just do you. Work hard and have dedication.”

A second lieutenant in the United States Army Reserve, Miller said, “One of the things I learned from the military is never give up. That’s one thing that has carried me on throughout my whole life. Never give up on yourself, never give up on your grades, never give up on your life reality or circumstances. Just continue to push and keep moving forward and success will come your way.”

The series was also one of the college’s celebrations of Black History Month and part of its Presidential Lecture Series.

Something inside

Antonio McGuire, an anesthesiologist and 1997 graduate of what was then called Southeast Halifax High School, talked about the time investment it takes to become a doctor, going through an undergraduate program to medical school and then a residency program. “You really have to want to do it. It has to be a calling. It has to be something on the inside. You can’t do it because mamma said do it or daddy said do it. It has to be something internal that’s driving you, pushing you, motivating you to do all that.

“If you’re thinking about any medical profession … and say ‘I don’t want to spend two years, I’ll be too old,’ you’re going to get older anyway so you might as well do it.”

McGuire also said that while the money is good in the medical profession, “If you go into it for the money, one-hundred percent you will be miserable. It has to be something greater than that. It has to be a higher purpose for you to go into the medical field. If you do that and you follow your passion, follow your love, follow your heart. If you do that your patients will pick up your intentions. They will pick up on are you really caring about me or are you just doing this for a job, for a paycheck. Subconsciously they will pick up on that and your colleagues will, too, so you have to do it for the right reasons and if it’s meant for you it will happen one-hundred percent.”

Many options

Jade Mills, a clinical pharmacist for Rural Health Group and a 2012 graduate of Northwest Halifax High School said those thinking of entering the medical field have many options to explore. “Once I was in college I was in a pre-health club and I learned about other opportunities in the health field. That’s where I learned about pharmacy.”

She said, “Just knowing what’s out there in the health field you may think you’re leaning one way but your strengths actually align with a different career. Continue to be involved and have leadership positions and work. Just show that you’re a well-rounded candidate for the program.”

Kesha Rooks, the chief operating officer at Rural Health Group and a 1994 Northwest graduate, said her advice is the same advice she gave to herself. “The only limitations in life are those you put on yourself. If healthcare is where your passion is, it’s where your strength lies, it is what you should go after.”

It can be intimidating at first, Rooks said, recalling her first visit to Duke University where she received both her masters and doctorate degrees. “I questioned whether or not I belonged, whether or not it was a good decision, but I also persevered through that. I actually did very, very well. Had I let myself be limited by what was in front of me I would not have graduated with two degrees from Duke University. Do not put limitations on yourself. Do not be intimidated by what feels big. The first failed test, the first no that you get, you keep pushing, you keep going.”

Rooks also said, “Be diverse in your thinking. Healthcare is not just doctors and nurses and pharmacists, and dentists. As you think about healthcare, it doesn’t have to be a traditional path. You can also widen that path and say, ‘Yes, I want to do this, but I also want to do that.’”

Know your passion

Jamaria Welch, the owner of W.D. Welch Counseling in Raleigh and a 2001 graduate of Roanoke Rapids High School, said, “I would first say find your passion. Find what you want to do whether you were going to get paid for it or whether it was for free. Sometimes you’re never going to get back what you put out in terms of dealing with other people’s lives and meeting where you are.”

Welch advised enhancing life skills. “One of things you’re going to need to know is you may be super smart, you may have all the academics, but how you make people feel when you meet them will be important.”

Crystal Lynch, a clinical laboratory scientist and 2010 KIPP graduate, said, “Know that this is exactly what you want to do. Doing it because somebody else is doing it or you think it makes a lot of money doesn’t work.”

She said to know your strengths. “I know I’m not a people person. I enjoy people but I don’t like people so me being in the lab by myself in a corner is where I need to be. I knew being out in the front wasn’t for Crystal. You have to know what works for you, what doesn’t work for you.”

Maureen Ben-Davies, a pediatrician and 1998 graduate of Weldon High School, said it is important to focus on your strengths. “You may think that you would be an awesome dental hygienist or pharmacist or social worker but you might have strengths elsewhere. You might find your joy elsewhere. You go through challenges. You want to be driven by an internal force that leads you to sit where you’re supposed to be sitting. Do some reflection and maybe take some strength assessment to see what you’re great at doing because that will give you an edge against people your applying with.”

Connect and communicate

Verna High is the dental hygiene director for HCC and a 1975 graduate of the former Gaston High School. “My best recommendation is to connect with someone who is already in the profession that you’re seeking to go into. If you want to be a dental hygienist, come spend one day with me.”

Angela Alston, an assistant professor of clinical nursing and the chief diversity officer at Ohio State University, is a 1996 graduate of Northwest High School. “It is really important to articulate what you want to do,” she said via a video feed. “If you are going to apply to a nursing school you want to articulate that you want to be a nurse. You want to be specific about it. People want to know you want to be a nurse versus trying to figure out what you want to do in healthcare. Be specific about it. Make sure your application packet is strong, communicate with people around deadlines. If you need recommendation letters, transcripts, things of that nature, make sure that others don’t put a delay in you getting your application submitted on time.”