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Co-founder of the National Pre-Health Conference Alejandra Bahena introduces Day three of the 2020 conference via Zoom. Screenshot: YouTube- National Pre-Health Conference
Co-founder of the National Pre-Health Conference Alejandra Bahena introduces Day three of the 2020 conference via Zoom. Screenshot: YouTube- National Pre-Health Conference

The conference empowering the next generation of health care professionals

The National Pre-Health Conference, which starts on Wednesday, Aug. 4, is out to put a new face on healthcare.

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The second edition of the National Pre-Health Conference takes place on Wednesday, Aug. 4. The free, virtual, three-day event is quickly becoming the premier conference in Philadelphia for students with plans to pursue careers in healthcare.

It’s goal is to inspire them to pursue those careers in hopes of changing the face of the profession to make healthcare more inclusive and accessible for all.

The one leading that charge is University of Pennsylvania rising senior Alejandra Bahena.

A long road to UPenn

In many ways, Bahena’s story sits at the core of the conference’s mission of expanding who gets seen in healthcare and who benefits.

Born in Mexico City, Bahena’s mother moved to the U.S when her daughter was just four years old, leaving her in the care of her father.

A life separated from her mother carried on until she hit eighth grade, when financial and other family difficulties required Bahena and her siblings to move to the U.S. with her mother.

Those financial struggles continued in the U.S., as her single mom worked two minimum wage jobs to support her children and bounced around to a number of living situations.

“It was a very difficult first couple of years we were here,” said Bahena.

Thankfully, she said, there was a community behind her new family in Celebration, Florida, where they settled.

Further stability was found for Bahena in her education career.

“Education was a great way for me to be able to help my family in the future,” she said.

In school, Bahena also found a vital support beam in her counselor, who not only encouraged her to go to college, but also found her the necessary financial support to make it a reality.

Before, the thought of going to college seemed like a distant dream. Bahena’s sister couldn’t pursue her own higher-ed aspirations because she had to stay home and help her mother support her other siblings.

“My mom basically wanted us to come here and learn English, and didn’t really have a plan for us,” she said.

Through her counselor, Bahena got involved with the nonprofit, QuestBridge, which connects high-achieving students from low-income backgrounds with opportunities at the U.S.’s top universities.

At the end of her experience with QuestBridge, Bahena was accepted into the University of Pennsylvania.

There, Bahena studies biochemistry, where she hopes to combine her interests in neurology, chemistry and psychiatry for a career in medicine.

A COVID creation

In her own words, she was building valuable connections and getting the most of her experience at the school until COVID-19 hit Philadelphia and Penn was forced to send all of its students home.

For Bahena, that meant going back to Florida to stay with her mom and sister.

“It was not really a stable situation at home,” she said.

In search of a better learning environment, Bahena then went to stay with her older sister and her fiancé in Cozumel, Mexico. Similar struggles arose as she had to share a room with them.

After that, Bahena went to stay with an aunt in Mexico City, but Wi-Fi struggles brought her back to Florida to see out the remainder of the semester at Penn.

“It was a very stressful semester for me,” she said. “I felt that because of the challenges, I wasn’t able to give my best.”

When times got the toughest and doubts arose about her future in medical school, Bahena reached out to her mentors to ground her. In the end, the conversations helped her see through the challenging year.

With the experience, Bahena also developed a greater appreciation for the mentors she’s gathered and her fortune to have them.

“A lot of students don’t have this type of support, particularly in the pre-health field,” she said.

It’s even more prevalent for students that come from underrepresented backgrounds.

“Getting into the medical field is very,very challenging, and it requires a lot of effort, a lot of support, a lot of resources. So students who don’t have these things are not able to get there, and that’s why there’s a lot of issues with healthcare systems lacking diversity and whatnot,” said Bahena.

Those realizations spawned what would become the National Pre-Health Conference.

After she struggled to end her COVID-affected semester at home, Bahena connected with a number of friends from Florida and Penn about the idea of putting together a virtual event that would empower students in the pre-health field like herself and expose them to its many career opportunities.

The first meeting took place on June 19, 2020.

With the help of a friend from her hometown of Celebration who had extensive event planning experience, Bahena’s idea quickly became a reality and the first-ever National Pre-Health Conference took place between Aug. 20 and Aug. 22.

“Having this conference is one of the most rewarding experiences that I’ve had my [in] whole life, so far,” she said.

By the numbers, the virtual conference reached more than 1,000 students across the country, and the feedback they received went into making 2021’s version even better.

Unity in healthcare

This year’s virtual edition begins on Aug. 4 and runs to Aug. 6 with the theme of ‘Unity in Health Care.’

Unity is one of the National Pre-Health Conference’s core values, and was inspired by what’s gone into combating COVID-19 in the healthcare industry over the past year and a half. 

“We really wanted to emphasize how important it is for students to learn about collaboration aspects of the healthcare field,” said Bahena. “Just thinking about the pandemic, the different types of healthcare teams that needed to work together to be able to help patients as effectively as possible given the demands.”

Built from personal experience

Much of what goes into the actual three-day programming is based on Bahena’s own experience.

For example, the first day in 2021 is all about exposing the students to the multitude of career opportunities in the healthcare field. That is done through a series of presentations from professionals across the industry, such as MDs, physician’s assistants, psychiatrists, those in public health, and more.

“A lot of the time, students, when they come to college and know they want to go into the medical field, usually they only know about nursing or M.D., or maybe even dentistry,” said Bahena. “A lot of the other fields aren’t known.”

In her own experience, coming as a first-generation college student, to go into medicine was to become a doctor.

For her, the first day at the conference is about helping students make more informed decisions earlier in their health education careers.

Day two focuses on helping students understand the process of applying to medical school, and features workshops on CVs and personal statements among other pointers from recruiters and students that have gone through it.

The third and final day is the most varied and touches on the wide array of topics within the industry, such as business, health advocacy and mental health for workers, among other topics.

In addition to exposing students to these multitudes of career paths and intersections with healthcare, Bahena also said the conference was about creating a community for those just starting their journeys in the healthcare field.

By going virtual, the event has also created a nationwide community of people interested in medicine.

It also keeps people connected through newsletters, social media accounts and a Discord server.

As for the future of the National Pre-Health Conference, Bahena’s main goal is getting additional funding and becoming a certified nonprofit. 

To register for the 2021 conference for free, visit the organization’s website.

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