In a few weeks, Ronell McZeal will walk in his high school graduation at Oakland’s Next Step Learning Center. By ninth grade, he’d already decided to become a surgeon, so joining UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland’s CHAMPS initiative was a natural fit.

That’s because the program is about training a health care workforce that looks like those it serves. CHAMPS, or Community Health and Adolescent Mentoring Program for Success, is a three-year internship program that prepares teens of color for health care careers. More than 500 students have graduated. And in a school district where one in four students do not finish school, every CHAMPS student graduates. More than half are the first in their families to attend college. Many go on to college, often pursuing health care careers.

CHAMPS students begin as 10th graders, reviewing the health care policies and terms they’ll need to navigate hospital rotations as juniors and seniors. When they aren’t in classes or rotations, they learn how to write a resume, apply for college financial aid and even manage anxiety. Students also practice clinical skills, dolling out injections to oranges and testing their suturing on bananas.

At the end of their first year, CHAMPS teens undergo a rite of passage.

“Medical students have a ‘white coat ceremony,’ where they wear a doctor’s coat for the first time, like an initiation into medicine,” explains CHAMPS program manager Michelle Ednacot. “As 10th graders, our students participate in a ‘blue coat ceremony,’ where they receive the blue coats that they’ll wear during hospital rotations.”

“It’s just one of the milestones we celebrate with them.”

The Warriors Community Foundation helps sponsor CHAMPS as part of its efforts to support education and youth development to promote thriving students, schools and communities.

Black and Hispanic Americans have less access to physicians

Research shows Black, Hispanic and Native American physicians are more likely than their white peers to practice in underserved communities. Yet, just 5% of the country’s physicians are Black compared to a U.S. population of about 15%. Hispanic physicians are similarly under-represented. There are disparities on the health outcomes side as well, with Black and Hispanic patients being less likely to receive life-saving heart surgeries and proper pain care compared to white patients. In fact, communities of color are less likely to have access to a physician at all.

Percentage of all active physicians by race and ethnicity, 2018

American Indians, Alaskan Natives, Native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders make up 3% or less of U.S. physicians. Source: Association of American Medical Colleges

“When you’re a patient, you’re trusting your health care provider,” explains Ednacot. “If that person looks and speaks like you and understands your culture, that builds trust. That’s part of culturally-competent care.”

CHAMPS was founded by Assistant Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at UCSF School of Medicine Tomás A. Magaña, MD, MA, FAAP, and Barbara Staggers MD, MPH, FAAP, the former chief of adolescent medicine at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland who pioneered Oakland’s school-based health clinics. Staggers passed away in early 2023. The pair hoped CHAMPS could help remove barriers to entering medicine that they faced as people of color.

But it’s not just about having diverse doctors and nurses, Ednacot adds. “It’s about having diverse radiology technicians, nutritionists, medical interpreters, and physical therapists, too.”

Born and bred: CHAMPS teen returns to serve Oakland as a nurse 

Growing up caring for younger sisters and cousins, Roxana Gonzalez wanted to be a pediatrician – until she shadowed a UCSF Benioff Oakland nurse as part of CHAMPS.

"Nurses spent more time with kids and families – explaining things, helping with paperwork and making sure that they had what they needed," she remembers. “That drove me to nursing.”

Gonzalez graduated high school in 2015 and attended the UCLA School of Nursing. When it was time to apply for internships and, ultimately, a job, she returned to CHAMPS.

Most of us growing up didn’t know doctors or nurses. Without CHAMPS, we wouldn’t have been exposed to careers like this.

Roxana Gonzalez

“They helped me build my resume, and I got help from professionals with my ‘elevator pitch’ to introduce myself to possible employers,” she says.

Today, Gonzalez is a UCSF Benioff Oakland nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit. She works alongside the same nurse she shadowed almost a decade ago as a CHAMPS student. “Most of us growing up didn’t know doctors or nurses,” says Gonzalez. “Without CHAMPS, we wouldn’t have been exposed to careers like this.”

‘I just knew then that I’d get my white coat one day’ 

Without CHAMPS, McZeal would not have met plastic and reconstructive surgeon Chau Tai, MD, during his rotation at the pediatric Hand and Reconstructive Surgery Center. The center treats children with injuries to their faces, arms and hands due to trauma, sports injuries and medical conditions.

“Dr. Tai’s big thing when she does procedures is not leaving a big scar or any scar at all,” McZeal says. “Her dedication to help people that might have felt insecure about little things in themselves, that was a big thing for me.”

“I want to have that same effect on others: To help people for the better,” he says.

Ronell McZeal poses near the Plastic, Hand, and Reconstructive Surgery unit sign at ZSFG
Oakland student Ronell McZeal at UCSF Benioff Oakland, where he completed a rotation in the hospital’s Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery department. UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals in Oakland and San Francisco recently ranked fifth nationwide and best in California for newborn specialty care for the second consecutive year.  

Today, McZeal is enlisting in the U.S. Air Force where he’ll receive medical training that he plans to use to begin his journey to becoming a plastic surgeon, just like Tai. He will be the third generation in his family to enlist in the military, following his grandfather who served in the army and his great-grandfather, a Marine.

“The day I got my blue coat at CHAMPS, I knew I’d done something great and that I was somebody. I felt unstoppable,” McZeal remembers. “It felt like when you work hard … and you have people that tell you, every day, that you’re amazing … that your work will pay off.”

“I knew then that I’m going to get my white coat one day,” he says.