‘I feel like I belong with Mayo’: RISE for Youth program celebrates successful first year

RISE for Youth, a first-of-its-kind collaboration between Mayo Clinic and the Rochester branch of the NAACP, recently wrapped up its inaugural year of programming. The program, which received funding through Mayo Clinic's $100 million commitment against racism, drew rave reviews from scholars, community partners and Mayo Clinic staff.

For as long as she can remember, Aisha Qassim has wanted to become a surgeon.

But with no doctors in her family, she wasn't sure of the path that would get her there.

So one day last spring, she "got vulnerable" and went to see her counselor at Mayo High School.

"I told her I wanted to go to college and get into a really competitive field, and asked her what would help me stand out among applicants who had the same credentials," Aisha says. "She told me about RISE for Youth and said, 'This program was created for kids like you.'"

Aisha applied, and on Aug. 6 was among the first 37 students to graduate from the program. She says it's changed her life.

"RISE really does live up to its name," Aisha says. "The program has allowed me to rise to my full potential without succumbing to society's idea of what I should be. The program saw me as me and recognized that as great. I've always had big dreams but never really knew how to reach them."

Now she does.

It takes a village

RISE for Youth, a collaboration between Mayo Clinic and the Rochester branch of the NAACP, was designed to help Black and underrepresented students like Aisha transform themselves from youth with potential into competitive and empowered talent entering the workforce.

"We developed a four-week curriculum to provide our scholars with skillsets and knowledge that can be used in any profession," says Amy Seegmiller Renner, Ph.D., curriculum director for the Office for Education Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science. "And we joined forces with community members to provide the lessons."

Those lessons included sessions on professionalism, emotional intelligence, networking, time management, interviewing and servant leadership.

RISE for Youth scholars also had the opportunity to speak with students in several of Mayo's education programs and were paired with a mentor from their field of interest. They received daily mentorship and support from Rawhi Said, program director, and Mary Gorfine, program coordinator. And they toured workplaces around Mayo Clinic and throughout Rochester, including the City of Rochester and First Alliance Credit Union.

"I was truly blown away with how eager and involved the students were," says Briana McDonald, branch lead at First Alliance. "I've spent many years volunteering in the community, and this was hands down the most enjoyable and rewarding program I have been a part of."

Scholars also attended a career fair that included close to 30 vendors from Mayo Clinic and the Rochester community.

"It was great to see the students exposed to content and mentors they may not have encountered without this program," says Barbara Jordan, operations administrator for Mayo Clinic's Office for Education Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. "They now have a much broader view of career options and their potential to impact society in positive ways."

Celebrating success

Jordan and other Mayo Clinic leaders were on hand to recognize and celebrate that potential at an awards dinner on Aug. 6. The event included congratulations from program leaders Anjali Bhagra, M.D., medical director of the Office of Equity, Inclusion and Diversity, and Walé Elegbede, Strategy Management Services, who is also president of the NAACP's Rochester branch. Abimbola O. Famuyide, M.B.B.S., a member of the Mayo Clinic Board of Governors, and Kent Pekel, superintendent of Rochester Public Schools, also addressed the scholars.

Floyd Willis, M.D., a family medicine physician at Mayo Clinic, served as the night's keynote speaker. Dr. Willis shared his own story of rising above low expectations and discrimination to earn an undergraduate degree from Yale University and eventually become a physician at Mayo Clinic. He encouraged the scholars to be persistent in pursuing their dreams — and to ignore the voices that may try to tell them they can't. 

Many of the students' parents accompanied them to graduation, including Aisha's. Her father, Shiek Qassim, says RISE for Youth was transformative for his family.

"Before, Aisha wanted to go to college far away," he says. "Now, she wants to stay in Rochester and work at Mayo Clinic. We are going to buy a bigger house because she is going to stay here. We are so grateful for this program."

Aisha is, too.

"I realized during RISE that if I want to do pre-med, why not got to University of Minnesota Rochester?" she says. "Mayo Clinic is amazing. And now, I feel like I belong with Mayo."

Program leaders hope all RISE scholars feel that way.

"Mayo Clinic and our community need what these young people have to offer," Dr. Bhagra says. "We need their intelligence, creativity, and drive. We hope that through RISE they have learned how valuable they are, and that there's a place for them here in Rochester."

Learn more

RISE for Youth staff have begun preparing for next year's cohort of scholars. Learn about opportunities to get involved here.

To learn more about Mayo's $100 million commitment, visit Rise Against Racism.