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A San Francisco Jobs Program Helps People Find Careers in Health Services

By Leland Kim

Graduates of the EXCEL Cycle 7 class listen to Damon Lew, who leads the EXCEL program for UCSF, during their graduation ceremony. Photo by Cindy Chew

After dropping out of college, 20-year-old Rodney Zinn found himself working various restaurant jobs in San Francisco making minimum wage.

“I was trying to figure out who I am and figure out where I’m going,” he said. “What is my purpose in life? I was just living.”

Rodney Zinn delivers one of the commencement addresses at his EXCEL Cycle 7 graduation as his sister Brittany Washington looks on. Photo by Cindy Chew

He wanted to find a career where he could help people. He gravitated towards the medical field because he grew up watching his mother battle multiple sclerosis, a debilitating autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system.

“I wanted to be in a position where I could help people the way the doctors and other medical folks helped my mom when I was growing up,” Zinn said. “I always knew that health care was my passion, and that’s what I wanted to do. But it’s hard being black, being 20 years old without a college degree to even get a break.”

Zinn’s aunt told him about an opportunity with the EXCEL (Excellence through Community Engagement and Learning) program, a partnership of UC San Francisco, the City and County of San Francisco and the Jewish Vocational Services (JVS). It is a work-based learning program that uses both classroom and on-the-job training to prepare participants for career path job in the health care sector.

Carlos Ozan gives Damon Lew a bear hug after receiving his diploma at his EXCEL Cycle 7 graduation. Photo by Cindy Chew

Out of more than 100 applicants, Zinn and 18 of his classmates were chosen to start the seventh cycle of the EXCEL program in May 2014.

“This was the foot in the door that I needed,” he said. “This program not only helped me unlock my potential, but it helped me see a vision that I could reach. It helped me open my eyes to new horizons.”

The 19 interns started with classroom training. Then in August, they transitioned to on-the-job training at various UCSF departments and clinics.

“The EXCEL Cycle 7 class has been an amazing group of interns,” said Damon Lew, assistant director of community relations at UCSF, who directs the EXCEL program. “They came into the program tremendously focused on their career goals and this is reflected by the number of interns that are either working in temp positions at UCSF or moving on to career positions after their internship."

Out of 110 EXCEL graduates since 2010, 73% have moved on to career or temporary positions. To learn more about how you can host an EXCEL intern, please visit the EXCEL website.

Out of 18 graduates, at least three have been placed in permanent jobs at UCSF.

“Damon is the most influential person associated with this program,” said Portia Jackson, who also graduated from the EXCEL program this cycle. “He has the drive to help people succeed, to want people to succeed, and to actually oversee this program. He has that desire to make this program work. Behind the scenes, he’s done some amazing things to create opportunities for us, and to get us in career positions.”

Zinn interned with the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, where he impressed clinical and administrative leadership.

“Rodney has extraordinary empathy for the patients and their families,” said Diane Sabin, clinic administrative director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine. “His dedication to serve others is now coupled with his new-found drive to learn more about clinics and patient care. I know that Rodney’s work will touch many people’s lives.”

Despite being the youngest person in the program, Zinn secured a permanent career position as a patient care coordinator with the UCSF Multiple Sclerosis Center.

“Rodney’s passion for the job, his eagerness for the role, his maturity at a young age and his genuineness in the way he presented himself really made him stand out,” said Galen Laserson, practice manager of the Multiple Sclerosis Center. “Our patient care coordinators work with our patients directly and it became clear that he could speak to our patients with a great amount of empathy, and his excitement about learning more about multiple sclerosis came through. This is someone we want to invest in, train and have as valuable member of our team.”

Rodney Zinn takes a moment to thank Diane Sabin (middle), his supervior during is EXCEL internship at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, and Galen Laserson (right), his new supervisor in his permanent career position with the Multiple Sclerosis Center. Photo by Cindy Chew

Zinn has found, what he describes as an “ideal career position,” since he is helping patients who are battling the same disease his mom has.

“It’s a blessing. I’m surrounded by the most brilliant doctors,” Zinn said. “Every little packet that they give me, everything new thing that I learn about MS, I call my mom after work and I’m telling her, ‘Maybe you should try this type of exercise with your MS? Maybe you should ask your doctor about switching to this type of medication?’ At the same time I’m learning, I’m becoming a professional with this disease and it’s powerful.”

Going from bussing tables for minimum wage to a career position in the health care industry is something Zinn could not have imagined a year ago.

“The EXCEL program gave me a reason to live in a sense. That’s really the best way to summarize it,” he said. “This program made me realize I have a purpose in life and that I can do great things in this world and that I can help people who are like my mom.

“Every day I come to the MS clinic and I’m happy. I have a smile on my face and I’m ready to go in and work hard. My passion comes out at work and to be in that position, you couldn’t ask for anything more.”

To find out more, please visit the EXCEL Program's website.

For more internal-facing stories from the UCSF community, please visit Pulse of UCSF.

Graduates of the EXCEL Cycle 7 class pose for a photograph with Damon Lew, who leads the EXCEL program for UCSF. Photo by Cindy Chew