Mercy Health fills talent pipeline with minority candidates through Rising Star

February 1, 2016


The 2015 cohort of Rising Star, a program that encourages minority youth with academic chops to pursue health careers, pose with Michael Connelly to mark the 10th anniversary of the enrichment/employment program. Connelly, the president and chief executive of Mercy Health, shown at center, inspired the initiative at Mercy Health Partners - Lorain Region with a call to increase diversity at all levels in Mercy Health's workforce. To the left of Connelly is Catherine Woskobnick, Rising Star's director, and viced president of mission and values integration for Mercy Health's Lorain Region. To the right of Connelly is Jacalyn Liebowitz, Mercy Health's chief quality officer and chief nursing officer.

Jordan Brown is a first-year student at Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine in Athens, Ohio.

Ronya Ajeel is a registered nurse in the neurological intensive care unit at Cleveland Clinic, and plans to apply to Case Western Reserve University's certified registered nurse anesthetist program in the next few months.

And Parris Smith, a psychology major from Cleveland State University, works as the Project Ready manager for Ohio's Lorain County Urban League while she completes a master's degree in public administration/social change.

Statistically, none of these young adults, all age 23, were predestined to achieve such academic and career success so early in life. Though they were good students with demonstrated leadership abilities, they all came from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, they are members of minority groups and no one in their families had ever gone to college.

But Brown, Ajeel and Smith shared in common something else besides poverty and minority status. All three participated in Mercy Health Partners, Lorain Region's Rising Star program, a 10-year-old collaboration between Mercy and the Urban League to cultivate a new cadre of healthcare leaders.

Grooming talent
"In 2005, Michael Connelly, the president of Mercy Health, urged the CEOs of its markets to develop a program to increase workforce diversity at all levels," says Catherine Woskobnick, vice president of mission and values integration at Mercy Health Partners — Lorain Region based in Lorain. "Ed Oley, our president and CEO, accepted the challenge and connected with the Lorain County Urban League to help identify high school students of diverse backgrounds, with GPAs of 3.6 or higher and a passion for health care, to participate in a monthlong, paid summer internship to explore all areas of the hospital."


Fast forward a decade and, says Woskobnick, "We are just beginning to see the fruits of our labor." To date 42 area students have participated in Rising Star, as the program continues to expand and change in response to needs. And the pipeline of highly qualified, diverse candidates Connelly en–visioned as eligible for employment opportunities at Mercy may soon start to flow.

Smith, for one, is already involved with Mercy; part of her job description is serving as lead coordinator between the Urban League and the Rising Star program. Brown says he dreams of returning to Mercy as an anesthesiologist someday. And after she becomes a nurse anesthetist, Ajeel says she would consider working at Mercy "in a heartbeat."

"Rising Star is an amazing program. It changes, molds and affects lives in so many ways," she says. "And the atmosphere at Mercy is so warm, welcoming and non-discriminating that being there and being part of the health care it provides would feel like being part of a family to me."

All three attribute their fond recollections of Rising Star to the tireless efforts of Woskobnick. It's a feeling Smith's mother, Paula Smith, echoes as well.


Open heart, open mind
"Rising Star would not be what it is without Catherine. She has given her heart and soul to the program," says Paula Smith, whose other daughter, Chynna, also attended Rising Star and is currently a premed student in her senior year at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, Ohio. "Catherine is so sincere in her love for these kids, and to have someone like her to believe in them is so important to their success."

That's because, through Woskobnick's stewardship, Rising Star has become much more than a four-week, summer experience. It's become just the first step for participants in a long relationship with Mercy to not only become familiar with various aspects of health care, but also to begin to emulate the hospital's heritage of the Sisters of the Humility of Mary.

During their Rising Star internship, students spend half of the day shadowing professionals, including dietitians, lab technicians and respiratory care therapists, to doctors and nurses working in emergency rooms, on behavioral health floors and in surgical suites. "Our students experience everything from open heart surgeries to the birth of babies," says Woskobnick.

The other half of the day is spent assisting with office projects, patient transport, radiology and nutritional services, housekeeping or maintenance.

Ps and Qs
Interns learn business etiquette — things like how to dress for the workplace, and the value of personal thank you notes — and they gain self-confidence.

"Because of Rising Star, my daughters have learned how to walk, talk, be organized and deal with conflict," says Paula Smith. "It's all about accountability and learning to have the courage to step out there and be whatever you want to be."

It's also about a bigger picture of life — figuring out who you are and how you fit into your world, says Woskobnick. Students are given assessments including Myers-Briggs and StrengthsFinder to extend their knowledge of themselves. And they all take a bus trip to Villa Maria Community Center near New Castle, Pa., home of the Sisters of the Humility of Mary, to visit the gardens, the cemetery and the mirror lake there.

"We ask the students to look in the lake and think about what they want to see in their reflection. We ask them to look at the tombstones and think about what they want their legacy to be. And we talk about adversity — how to rise above it and how to keep their eyes on the prize," says Woskobnick.

Building resilience
Adversity is a common thread running through most Rising Star students' lives, she adds.

Take Brown, who was raised by his paternal grandmother, now 72, and readily admits that though she gave him love and support daily, "we didn't always have everything we needed.

"Catherine [Woskobnick] kept up with me all through high school and college, sending me letters, encouraging me, telling me she was counting on me to continue my studies," he says. "One time when my money was running low, and I was eating ramen on a daily basis, she even sent me a care package with snacks that lasted an entire summer."

Ajeel, a first generation American whose mother and father emigrated from the Middle East, says she always knew she wanted to be a nurse anesthetist but that Woskobnick helped her turn that dream into reality. "She was so supportive, helping me with college applications and letters of recommendation. We still go out to dinner to catch up on life," she says.

And Smith, who works side by side with Woskobnick now, says she can't imagine what her life would have been like without Rising Star.

"My parents divorced early, and my sister, brother and I lived with my mom. She worked full time but our family struggled financially. We lived in low-income housing and we needed welfare," she recalls.

Woskobnick, she adds, is known for giving kids so much more than just her professional support. "Catherine comes to graduations, homecomings, family funerals," says Smith. "We are all convinced she will be at our weddings someday too."

Family support
These days, students can return to Mercy each summer if they choose to continue shadowing, working, getting hands-on experience and serving as role models to younger students.

"Rising Star began with four students per summer and start-up funding of $5,760," says Woskobnick. "This year we had 19 participants and a budget of almost $32,000 — almost all of it spent on students' salaries."

Participants' paychecks, she adds, often go to help their families pay for necessities like utilities and rent. "These students need this, deserve this, and are so appreciative of this opportunity," she says.

That's why she is so excited that a new, $30,000 grant from the Nord Family Foundation in Lorain is being added to the Rising Star coffers to help each student with money for college as well.

She says staff who work with the Rising Star students report benefits of their own from the program. "The time we invest in touching their lives touches ours in many ways, as well."


Copyright © 2016 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2016 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.