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‘Doctors Academy’ at UConn Health Graduates High School Seniors

Connecticut High School Seniors graduated on May 15 from the Health Career Opportunity Programs
UConn bound Neha Shanavas, 17, of Bloomfield, graduated from The Doctors Academy on May 15 (Photo by John Atashian).

Neha Shanavas of Bloomfield is only seventeen, but she knows she wants to be a UConn-trained physician committed to serving the underserved.

Her inspiration since middle school has been The Doctors Academy at UConn Health.

“The Health Career Opportunity Programs has served as a beacon of hope, providing access and support to those who are underrepresented in the STEM and health care fields,” said Shanavas.

The Doctors Academy is part of the longstanding Health Career Opportunity Programs (HCOP) founded over two decades ago by physician-scientist Dr. Marja Hurley, where middle school and high school students receive in-depth education in the health sciences and career path mentorship on Saturdays and in the summer. The Doctors Academy is one of 14 Health Career Opportunity Programs that are part of the Aetna Health Professions Partnership Initiative (HPPI).

Shanavas, a soon-to-be graduate of the Sport and Medical Sciences Academy in Hartford, is UConn bound. Excitedly, Shanavas has been accepted into UConn’s Special Program in Medicine to pursue both her bachelor of science degree in molecular and cellular biology and a medical degree over the next eight years to become a doctor.

High School Senior Neha Shanavas accepting her white coat from HCOP founder Associate Dean and Professor Dr. Marja Hurley on May 15. Shanavas has been accepted to UConn’s Special Program in Medicine (Photo by John Atashian).

“UConn was always my top choice,” Shanavas exclaims. “The exposure to UConn Health via the HCOP programs really sparked my interest in UConn’s Special Program in Medicine. The team-based learning system and collaborative community also drew me in. I’m extremely grateful for Dr. Hurley and the HCOP team. Without their support, none of this would have been possible.”

Shanavas added, “A lot of students at my school did the HCOP program throughout middle and high school. Since at the time, I was interested in STEM, I decided to apply. Years later, I’m very happy that I did, as it was interacting with different health care professionals and doing enrichment trips that made me interested in going into the medical field.”

Her favorite part of the Doctors Academy was the High School Student Research Apprentice Program’s exposure to the research field, “I even got to present a poster on methods of analyzing pain models for osteoarthritis.”

Impressively, during high school, Shanavas worked with the Governor’s Prevention Partnership to help advocate for substance use prevention among youth.

“I really realized how important a health care worker’s role is in advocating for our patients and their best interests. I hope to stay involved in doing research and advocacy during my tenure at UConn. Having grown up in a city with avid health disparities, I hope to become a physician who is committed to serving underserved communities,” stresses Shanavas who has a strong message to the youth of Connecticut.

“Take every opportunity you can find out there. If you know you want something, don’t wait around – go out there, explore, network, and get yourself involved in programs that could help you achieve your goals,” says Shanavas.

Shanavas and the 14 Senior Doctors Academy graduates in the Class of 2024 are following in the footsteps of hundreds of successful HCOP graduates like Joshua Crittenden, Ph.D.

This Doctors Academy alum, originally from Windsor, Conn. spoke virtually to the students at the closing ceremony about how he is now working for New York State as an Environmental Scientist. He is a 2014 graduate of CREC Metropolitan Learning Center high school in Bloomfield, earned his environmental engineering degree from UConn in 2018, and Duke University master’s degree in 2022 and Ph.D. in 2023 in Environmental Engineering.

“I’m grateful for the HCOP Programs,” shares Crittenden, who fondly remembers starting HCOP in 2009 and spending his middle school and high school summers and Saturdays at UConn Health, before attending UConn Storrs as an undergraduate.

“All HCOP Programs are honestly an opportunity to really build foundational skills that I continue to use as a scientist to this day,” says Crittenden. “I first did research one summer in a lab at UConn Health. I got to present my research findings at the end of the summer. That experience was key for me becoming a scientist. As a Ph.D. I always have to present at conferences. It is definitely a skill I learned in high school thanks to the Doctors Academy.”

Also, research trips to conferences to hear from many health science professionals in the field and connect with mentors are also standout HCOP experiences for Crittenden.

“Ten years later, I still stay in contact and foster relationships with my fellow HCOP students,” says Crittenden. “We all have done successful things in our careers. It’s nice to see everyone live out their childhood dreams.”

Dr. Brendan Dolan accepting his community service award from State Sen. Douglas McCrory and Dr. Marja Hurley (Photo by John Atashian).

He stresses to Connecticut’s youth, “If you are trying to be a doctor or dentist, a program like HCOP will help you become a more competitive candidate and learn the skills you really need. We have to recognize the impact of programs like HCOP and its Doctors Academy, the resource of UConn Health and the programs’ funding support.”

Brendan Dolan, DMD, a graduate of UConn School of Dental Medicine, heartwarmingly recalls being a mentor to Crittenden ten years ago. Dolan was awarded a Community Service award by HCOP leadership for his dedication and work with the students as both an instructor and mentor.

“This program really works,” Dolan shared at the HCOP closing ceremony. “Follow your dreams, follow your hearts!”

Psychiatry Resident Physician Dr. Ireon LeBeauf accepting her award from Dr. Hurley and State Sen. McCrory for her support of parents (Photo by John Atashian).

UConn Health Psychiatry Resident Physician Dr. Ireon LeBeauf was also honored at the event for her dedicated annual seminar series on stress management for the parents of the students in the Doctors Academy.

“For State Senator Douglas McCrory giving back is a priority,” said Hurley while introducing the state representative of the Towns of Bloomfield, Hartford and Windsor who served as the HCOP graduation’s keynote speaker.

“Thank you Dr. Hurley for having a vision!” McCrory applauded. In his keynote address he stressed the critical importance of members of our communities having access to health care, access to culturally competent providers, and always being shown empathy and compassion by more doctors and dentists that actually look like them.

Keynote speaker State Senator Douglas McCrory addressing the Class of 2024 (Photo by John Atashian).

“This program works! It develops health professionals. Young people – stick with it! Young people – we are counting on you! Show your love and compassion. And come back and serve your community,” McCrory said.

Hurley concluded the beautiful ceremony with a special thank you to parents and congratulations to the graduating students.

“A special thank you to the parents who get the students up on Saturdays to get to the program. I’m really excited for the Senior high school students who persisted and are now entering college,” Hurley happily shared.

Congratulations to the 2023-2024 graduates of the Great Explorations, Jumpstart, and Junior & Senior Doctors Academy!

The 14 Senior Doctor Academy graduates in the Class of 2024 are: 

Audrey Addy

Jesus Caballero

Markeda Carnegie

Chelsea Coleman

Jose Cruz-Gomez

Lauryn Hall

Mia Khan

J’Len King

Seiwa Lukelwa

Nathan Morgan

Izabella Rosa-Sanclemente

Valerie Rosa- Sanclemente

Neha Shanavas

Michelle Wilson