Students surround Dr. Bala “Vish” Vishwanathan at North Central Baptist Hospital. Courtesy photo.
Students surround Dr. Bala “Vish” Vishwanathan at North Central Baptist Hospital. Courtesy photo.

“The Road Not Taken – Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference” – By Robert Frost

This quote was the theme for the 4th annual youth leadership program for middle school students, jointly organized by the Alamo Asian American Chamber of Commerce Educational Foundation and Communities In Schools. This year, the program included 10 middle school students from Harlandale Middle School who are part of a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) initiative run by Communities In Schools at their campus. The other 12 students were from BASIS San Antonio, a high performing STEM charter school that is ranked among the top 10 on the Newsweek High School ranking and Washington Post.

The goal of the program was to expose the students to various STEM and arts related career options and the opportunity to interact with some of the key community leaders. This included getting an up-close look at the day-to-day life of politicians, engineers, scientists, doctors, lawyers, and other professionals.

The program kicked off at Harlandale Middle School with Eli Embleton, a poet and the former CEO of For the Kids Dance Marathon (FTK). The students learned how to trust and work in teams with people whom they had never met before through reality oriented physical experiences (ROPES). Embleton’s framework for the summer program was “What it means to be a youth leader.” He introduced students to a Robert Frost poem to explore the idea of a road less travelled. They were asked to explore “What would be different about me if I walked on an unknown path?”

Students sit in a circle at Harlandale Middle School. Courtesy photo.
Students sit in a circle at Harlandale Middle School. Courtesy photo.

In the afternoon, students had an opportunity to meet with Dr. Gregory Aune, a pediatric oncologist and one of the many physician-scientists at the UT Health Science Center. Aune, through cutting-edge research, is paving the way for new treatments for cancer patients and survivors. Aune candidly spoke with the students about his own personal story and what led him to spend 17 years in research and academics post high school. The students also visited the lab to get a close-up look at cancer research and the work of a scientist. Aune also acts as a mentor for the UTSA FTK program.

On Tuesday, students visited the children’s court of Judge Charles Montemayor at the Bexar County Family Justice Center. The students witnessed a child custody case and had the opportunity to interact with Judge Montemayor. The students learned what it takes to become a judge and the roles played by the different people present in the courtroom. They walked away impressed with the Judge’s recommendations about the case.

Next, the students took a short walk over to City Hall to meet with Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8). Nirenberg held a “town hall” style meeting and answered all the questions students had concerning their community. He shared with the students some of the work the council is doing around transportation, water safety, and job growth for the citizens of San Antonio as well as his personal journey to politics. Nirenberg tweeted after the meeting that “Our future is bright with these young leaders soon at the helm.”

The group stands in front of City Hall after meeting with Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8).
Students gather for a photo in front of City Hall after meeting with Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8).

The students started Wednesday with a visit to San Antonio Water System (SAWS) Dos Rios water recycling center and laboratory. The students learned what happens to the water they flush everyday and the different testing procedures used by SAWS to ensure that water is safe for consumption. SAWS provided great insight on the importance of water conservation and different career opportunities for students with background in chemistry and biology. The afternoon session allowed the participants to volunteer at the San Antonio Food Bank and interact with CEO Eric Cooper who shared his own personal story.

Thursday’s agenda led the students to Southwest Research Institute (SWRI), where they learned about robotic engineering and the research and development of industrial robots used in manufacturing. The students also learned about some of the work SWRI is doing for NASA and space exploration including a visit to various tooling and testing labs. In the afternoon, the students were back to Café College to learn about the services offered to college bound students. They finished the day learning about the field of aerospace engineering including a hands-on STEM challenge to build a landing rover for two marshmallow “astronauts.”

The group visits North Central Baptist. Courtesy photo.
The group visits North Central Baptist Hospital. Courtesy photo.

Like every year, Friday was a true adventure as the students got into scrubs to experience robotic surgery at the North Central Baptist Hospital. The students had the opportunity to operate daVinci robots, $2 million machines that are used for surgery. Robotic surgeries are minimally invasive with smaller incisions that result in less pain and scarring. The students also met with Dr. Bala “Vish” Viswanathan, an accomplished surgeon with more than 20 years of experience.

In an afternoon visit to the UTSA Interactive Technology Experience Center, the students met Brandy Alger, a coordinator for engineering outreach. While exploring the center, the students learned about the engineering elements of robotics. The students then participated in a team exercise to create a chair using newspaper and tape. Brandy shared information to the students about various scholarships and informed them about the starting salaries of engineers, which is about $60,000 per year.

The week ended on Saturday morning with a café style dialogue where the students shared their adventures and learning with their parents. The students and parents were asked to answer and discuss questions like – “What gives you spirit at school/work? What kills your spirit?”

Over the last four years, 100+ students have participated in the program and have walked away with information and experiences that will allow them to look at career and life with new set of eyes.

The organizers of this week-long program included Aparna Vohra and Sarit Kapur from the Educational Foundation and Natasha Wilkerson from Communities In Schools.

*Featured/top image: Students surround Dr. Bala “Vish” Vishwanathan at North Central Baptist Hospital. Courtesy photo. 

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Sarit Kapur

Sarit Kapur, an educator and an entrepreneur, owns Kumon of Bitters@1604, an after school enrichment program, and an education technology startup, Kapur is also president of the Alamo Asian...