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Pathway to Feinberg: Janet Rocha, PhD


A Chicago Public School Student to Faculty at Feinberg School of Medicine: The Value of Untrainable Expertise

For the past decade, I have had the privilege to work with K-16th pipeline programs across the country, and I am humbled when students validate my role in these types of opt-in extramural experiences. Elizabeth Orta is one of those students. Our paths crossed during her freshmen year in high school when she became part of the Northwestern Medicine (NM) Scholars Program, a partnership pipeline program with Westinghouse College Prep. With her permission, I share her words here:

"Hi Janet, they told me not to tell anyone other than family, but you are part of my family. I have been competing for the Posse Scholarship for three months now, and today they informed me that I am a Posse Scholar for DePauw University. I wanted to thank you for helping me become the person I am today…You showed me I had the potential. And for that, I am forever thankful."

Elizabeth wanted to share the delightful news with me because she identified me as a family member. Particularly, she saw me as an individual who 'helped her become the person she has become.' I often see myself in my students, like Elizabeth; they motivate my commitment to transform the educational experiences of minoritized students (e.g., Black, Latinx, students from low-income households).

Like my students, most of my own transformative experiences happened outside of the classroom. Prior to earning my PhD from the University of California, Los Angeles and graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree from Northwestern University, I attended Benito Juarez, a non-selective enrollment Chicago Public School (CPS) high school located in Pilsen, a community often referred to the 'Heart of Chicago' and home to many Mexican immigrants and first-generation Mexican Americans. As a product of the CPS system, my experiences as a child of Mexican immigrants and a first-generation college student has given me firsthand knowledge of the types of challenges that arise in the American educational pipeline for students from minority groups. I am well aware of the inequalities presented to communities of color in diverse environments. Thus, I bring untrainable expertise that facilitates a genuine connection with students from similar backgrounds through our collective experience of marginalization in educational settings.  

As a trained social research methodologist, I draw upon asset-based frameworks to understand students’ subjective experiences, and I use this knowledge when designing, implementing and assessing programs. I aim to strengthen the already possessed cultural wealth that students bring with them to school, and I challenge normative views and majoritarian stories that neither understand nor capture how these students navigate their education. I aim to bridge the gap between educational research and practice by implementing opportunities and methodologies to better support and understand students’ lived experiences both in and out of the classroom.

Extramural programs can serve as an academic and social counter-space or a setting where deficit notions of minoritized students are challenged and where a positive learning and multi-identity formation processes can be established and maintained. Counter-spaces can help counter possible barriers that may diverge students from achieving academic success.

My diverse background complements the mission of pipeline programs that aim to cultivate equity, access and opportunity for students who have been historically absent in higher education, in general, and specifically in medical, health and science professions. My involvement in these spaces is to ensure the implementation of a culturally sustaining curriculum, application of high-impact practices, and the promotion of evidence-based research. In the NM Scholars Program, for example, students build on their cultural wealth, strengthen their toolkits and are empowered to see themselves as holders and creators of knowledge.

It is important to understand the role pipeline programs can play for students when navigating their educational aspirations, attainment and success, specifically across science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEM-M) contexts. In a recent publication, we promote strategic alliance partnerships as a unique solution to the long-time educational inequity that has systematically limited minoritized students from full-realization of careers in STEM-M. Elizabeth’s example, like other program participants’, affirms the need for more opportunities for minoritized students to engage in culturally sustaining programs that transform student journeys. Strategic alliance partnerships can address this need.