Kim Hall traveled more than 200 miles to spend the week at Mayo Clinic.

Not seeking medical care, the 15-year-old from Brainerd is on a personal fact-finding mission to determine whether she should pursue a career in health care.

Hall was one of 40 high school students from around the state selected to attend the inaugural career immersion program developed by the Mayo School of Health Sciences; 10 were from Southeast Minnesota, while one came from Waubun, northeast of Fargo. It was initially designed for just 20 students, but the overwhelming response — 130 high-quality applicants — prompted Mayo to double the size of the program before it had even started.

Students arrived Sunday and will spend the week being introduced to 15 of the 125 programs currently offered at Mayo School of Health Science. They're scheduled to head home Friday afternoon.

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Ruth Bello

"Our goal is to introduce them to careers they've never heard of before," said Ruth Bello, Mayo Clinic's operations manager who developed the pipeline program.

The daily schedule is grueling, with breakfast at 7:15 a.m. and work with researchers routinely lasting until at least 8 p.m. Cell phones are confiscated by Mayo officials during those hours to ensure the students maintain their focus.

The financial burden is virtually nonexistent; Mayo covered all costs, including food and lodging. A final bill won't be available until next month, but Bello predicted it would be "astronomical."

"This is an investment into our future," said Sarah Penkava, program director of Surgical First Assistant program.

Hall was one of 18 students who spent three hours Tuesday morning receiving a hands-on tutorials from Penkava and her staff of volunteers. While Penkava described the job as being like a second set of hands for the surgeon, Tuesday's classroom session included a life-sized game of Operation for the students to test their own hands.

The immersion program has a multi-pronged agenda. Mayo is actively recruiting high-achieving youth to help fill a projected gap in health care employees in the decades ahead as baby boomers enter their twilight years. Penkava, for example, says her program has a 100 percent job placement rate over the past four years, but just 8 of 20 seats are filled for her fall class.

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Stacey Rizza

Additionally, Mayo is actively seeking to diversify its workforce to better reflect its varied patients. As such, the immersion program targeted underrepresented minorities for the unique opportunity; at least 70 percent of this week's attendees fit that description while also boasting a GPA of at least 3.75, according to Dr. Stacey Rizza, associate dean of student affairs for Mayo School of Health Sciences.

"We were very intentional about that," Rizza said, noting that this week's numbers reflect optimism for diversifying the health care workforce in the years ahead.

"Our patients really need someone who looks like them," Bello said.

Hall, a Brainerd junior, leaped at the opportunity to visit Mayo for the first time. Just 36 hours into the immersion, she was already gushing about the "amazing" people and options that were being presented to her.

She's still set on something in the medical profession, but the experience has her considering more options.

"Coming in, I was thinking more lab work … but I'm getting more exposed to hands-on experiences and that's interesting, too," Hall said.

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