Solomon Akaeze wants to be an orthopedic surgeon, and that aspiration became more real after a doctor who went to his high school decades ago came back to teach Akaeze and his classmates medicine.
"To see that someone who was in my shoes at one point now coming back to teach us, it just makes it more feasible in my mind that it is possible for me to also do it," said Akaeze, 16, a junior at Valley Stream Central High School.
Akaeze is one of about 40 high schoolers who attend roughly a half-dozen classes taught by Dr. Richard Evans, a urologist who graduated from Valley Stream Central in 1976. The sessions are incorporated into an Advanced Placement Biology class at the high school.
Evans, 64, works at Good Samaritan Hospital in Suffern in Rockland County and lives in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. He travels to his alma mater regularly to teach the teenagers how to suture, read CT scans and navigate paths in the medical field.
Evans said he started what he called "Mini Medical College" at a BOCES program in Rockland County in 2017. The sessions, which are free to the schools, came to Valley Stream in the fall of 2018. The pandemic interrupted the classes, but Evans returned to the Nassau County school in September. He also teaches at Chester Academy in Orange County in New York.
"Teaching, to me, is an honor," Evans said. "I always thought that it would be fun to bring medical school to the high school students to try to motivate them."
Beyond gaining knowledge, some students said seeing a physician who once walked their school hallways make them feel like their dreams are within reach.
"It's inspiring to see someone that went here become a doctor," Akaeze said after a class from Evans on medical law and ethics on Friday. "Sometimes it feels like you have to be born into wealth and money to even have that be feasible. But he wasn't because he was in the same space as me."
The class is made up of juniors and seniors taking AP Biology with teacher Patrick Tirino. Many of the students already knew they wanted to pursue a career in medicine.
Even if not, Tirino said the lessons expand their medical knowledge that can come in handy in life.
"How do you read a blood test? How do you read a chest X-ray? If a doctor is prescribing antibiotics, what does that mean?" Tirino said. "I want them to have a working knowledge so that when they go to the doctor, they can ask basic questions and have a basic understanding of what the doctor is talking about."
The seniors taking the classes said having a practicing doctor in their classroom also gives them a sense of direction.
Myklene Attaway knew she wanted to get into medicine, but she didn’t know the path.
"As a senior, I was very confused with what I wanted to do," said Attaway, 18. "[Before] he started coming and educating us on the different fields, I did not know there was so many things [you could do other than being] doctors and nurses. … I wasn't fully exposed to all that. So he really helped calm my nerves. And I know that if Dr. Evans can do it, I can do it, too."
Zakkiyya Fraser, 17, said the lessons have had a stabilizing effect on her learning and reaffirmed her plan to become a pediatrician.
It "has meant a lot to me this year, especially because it's been up and down with the [COVID-19] pandemic," the senior said. "Once he starts talking about certain topics, it triggers something inside of you and almost makes you realize that I can go into this — I could see myself in this field."