Dr. Behnoosh Afghani
Dr. Behnoosh Afghani leads UCI efforts to expose local high school students to careers in healthcare. Michelle Kim/UC Irvine

If today’s high school students are tomorrow’s doctors, nurses and medical technicians, they have a friend and mentor in Dr. Behnoosh Afghani.

A specialist in pediatric infectious diseases and a member of the hospitalist program at UC Irvine Medical Center, Afghani is involved in two university efforts to introduce teens to the possibility of a career in medicine.

“I wanted to give back to the community and help provide opportunities that weren’t available when I was in school,” she says.

In July, Afghani directed UCI’s first Summer Premed Program, in which 30 local high school students got to experience what it might be like to attend medical school.

For two weeks, they went on patient rounds with doctors at UC Irvine Medical Center and took part in clinical training exercises at the new Medical Education Simulation Center on campus. In addition, UCI faculty physicians spoke with them about medical ethics and compassionate care.

“We want to expose students to the entire spectrum of the medical school experience, from classroom work to frank discussions about moral and ethical issues,” Afghani says. “We hope they see a link between what they study now in high school and how it relates to becoming a physician.”

Afghani is also director of the Center for Future Health Professionals, which she founded in 2007 to familiarize promising, underserved youths in Orange County with different medical fields. The center is active in high school career fairs, conducts classroom workshops, and arranges job shadowing and mentorships.

“It’s not just about becoming a doctor or nurse,” she says. “There are dozens of healthcare careers available that these students may not know exist.”

The center has already broadened the horizons of more than 1,000 teens, and 50 have been matched with mentors – UCI graduates and undergraduates in health studies, doctors, nurses, X-ray technicians, pharmacists, geriatricians, social workers, and occupational, physical and respiratory therapists.

The mentorships are designed to give students the support and information they need to successfully navigate the entrance requirements and demands of college-level and postgraduate healthcare career training programs. Not one participant in a mentorship has dropped out of school.

“Our goal is to become the primary local support network for young people in underserved communities who wish to pursue careers as healthcare professionals,” Afghani says. “We want to increase the numbers of underrepresented minority group members in healthcare.”

In June, UCI recognized the center’s progress and honored those involved. Ten students from Santa Ana and Anaheim high schools presented findings about their communities’ health challenges gleaned from collaborative projects with UCI students.

Both the Summer Premed Program and the Center for Future Health Professionals reflect the university’s desire to involve the community in medical education.

“Dr. Behnoosh Afghani personifies the dedication of UC Irvine to the youth of the Orange County community,” says Dr. Ralph V. Clayman, dean of UCI’s medical school. “Her selfless dedication to bringing information on the health professions and creating a unique experience for Orange County’s young people is truly inspiring.”