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A job-shadowing assignment between Senior Britany Guerrero and Physician Assistant Jared Harper, ’15, represents more than just an alumnus-student connection. It symbolizes a continual culture of giving back through mentorship and a flourishing Latino community at Eastern Kentucky University.

Harper and Guerrero share a similar path. Both came to EKU from Kentucky’s Appalachian region — Harper from Somerset and Guerrero from Ashland. Both pursued biomedical sciences and Spanish double majors with aspirations to become physician assistants. Both are bilingual, with Latino heritage in their immediate families. Both benefited from a mentorship program, and both give back through mentorship.

While a student, Harper was connected with the Madison County Health Department for a job-shadowing opportunity by Dr. Abbey Poffenberger, chair of EKU’s Department of Languages, Cultures, and Humanities, and professor of Spanish.

Doctora (Dra.) Abbey helped me; she knew I wanted to be a PA-C (physician assistant-certified), so she helped me find a clinic in Richmond, working with Spanish translators and interpreters,” Harper said. He attributes the experience to helping him get into the University of Kentucky’s competitive PA program. “I did the PA program, and now I’m practicing. Britany is pretty much six or seven years behind me on the same path. Because Dra. Abbey and I have kept in touch, Britany is able to shadow me now.”

Harper works as a family medicine PA-C in Versailles, Kentucky. With a large Hispanic population in the area, Harper said he speaks to about a quarter of his patients in their native Spanish language.

Being bilingual proves useful in his career, Harper said, enabling him to give more personal care and serve as both a healthcare provider and interpreter. Beyond the language component, understanding and sharing Latino culture helps Harper establish long-term relationships and trust with his patients, improving healthcare access and quality. 

When Guerrero visits to shadow Harper, she also connects to the patients in Spanish. From this mentorship, she said she’s learning the correct word usage for health terminology, the local health care issues, mental health awareness and the behind-the-scenes work that goes along with being a PA-C. 

“I foresee when Britany gets her interview for PA school, they’ll look at her clinical experience the same way they looked at how it helped me,” Harper said. 

Guerrero’s shadowing assignment started as part of Poffenberger’s Spanish service learning course, which includes a 30-hour service-learning requirement.

“Our students are out in the community, using their Spanish, and applying what they’re learning in the classroom to real-world situations,” said Poffenberger. “Whatever matches the students’ career goals — that’s where we try to establish a relationship and partnership. It’s very much about getting the students out practicing and speaking the language in an immersive cultural experience.”

Relationships, such as the mentorship between Harper and Guerrero, not only contribute to the academic experience for Spanish majors, but also play a major role in the thriving Latino comunidad at EKU.

“We are a familia,” Poffenberger said, “And that is our approach with the families and students that come to EKU.”

The Department of Languages, Cultures and Humanities puts immense efforts into building an inclusive, diverse and supportive learning environment for all students. As a result, the Latino population represents a growing demographic at EKU, with now more than 500 students — doubled from the past five to six years and boasting about an 80 percent retention rate.

“We’re the go-to place right now in the state because of the resources that we have,” Poffenberger said. Those resources include the Bobby Verdugo & Yoli Rios Bilingual and Peer Mentor and Tutoring Center (often referred to as El Centro), Camino to Success Camp for prospective high school students and incoming EKU freshmen, and community engagement opportunities for students. 

“What El Centro has become to many of the Latino students is a home away from home. It’s a place where they feel comfortable being themselves,” said Dr. Socorro Zaragoza, associate professor of Spanish. It’s not only open for Latino students, but any student looking for a mentor or tutor, and not only in the languages, she said. “Students are helping each other, and that’s the kind of community that we are able to create here. It eases the way in terms of anxiety and the unknown when somebody else has been through it.” 

Guerrero gives back to her fellow classmates and future Colonels as a peer mentor and tutor at El Centro and a facilitator for Camino Camp. She also participates in panels for incoming students where she talks about being a first-generation college student.

“All of these have enhanced my experience at EKU, because it makes me more knowledgeable about other cultures, have an open perspective, and overall show other students that if I can do it, they can do it,” Guerrero said. “It’s a humbling experience.”

After seeing the immense effect Harper’s mentorship has made on her journey to becoming a PA, she plans to continue the mentorship tradition and provide a similar oportunidad for a future student.

“For first-generation students who feel scared of the unknown or need that extra help to navigate the PA world — I just know that feeling and am so fortunate to have found Jared,” Guerrero said. “I would definitely want to become a resource for another student and show them that ‘¡Sí Se Puede: Yes You Can!’”

For Harper, he says mentoring Guerrero offered him an opportunity to look introspectively at how far he’s come. “I remember myself in Britany’s shoes,” Harper said. “It was a long, hard and arduous journey becoming a PA-C, but now looking back, it’s definitely been worth the difficult journey.” 

Would you like to mentor an EKU student? Be part of the brand-new EKU Alumni Mentor Program where simple actions and meaningful relationships help prepare students for a successful future. From resume review to internship opportunities, choose the depth of your involvement based on your schedule.

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