Before they become researchers or nurses or physicians, students need someone to convince them that such careers are not only possible, but well within their reach.

In Niagara County, that person is often Niagara Falls native Rhonda Bivins, who spends her days helping local students learn more about the benefits of pursuing jobs in the high-demand health care industry.

“I try to get them to look inside themselves and see what it is they want,” said Bivins, Niagara County Program Coordinator for the Erie Niagara Area Health Education Center, Inc., a Buffalo-based organization formed to address inequities in the local health care industry. “I always tell them, ‘education can’t be taken away. The more education you have, the more options you have.’ I try to tell them that anything is possible. We all come from greatness and we should aspire to do great things.”

Bivins has been inspiring students to do great things through AHEC programs for the past four years. As program coordinator, she serves as the connection between students in Niagara County school districts and health care educators and professionals from throughout Western New York, including those working in places like the University at Buffalo’s School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, Niagara County Community College and Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center.

Through her agency’s programs, Bivins helps students, particularly those from under-served urban and rural districts, find out early if they might have an interest or an affinity for jobs in scientific, technical or health-related fields.

“We look at all the careers in health care, from janitor to the CEO,” said Bivins, who is a 1987 graduate of the nursing program at the former Trott Vocational School in Niagara Falls.

Erie Niagara AHEC is a partner agency in New York’s Health Education Center system and is authorized under federal legislation passed in 1971. The agency offers a variety of student-centered programs, including Train the Brain, a course that teaches children, ages 9 to 16, math, creativity and critical-thinking skills through the tradition of quilt making and MedSTEP, a year-long curriculum that allows local high school students to learn skills needed for college courses during sessions at the university.

Since 2001, Bivins has been the primary advocate for the Medical Academy of Science and Health, or M.A.S.H. camp program at NFMMC. During the two-day program, students ages 8-14, work with hospital officials to get a feel for what it is like to work in the emergency room, be an X-ray technician or assist new mothers in the maternity ward.

“Rhonda has really taken the lead on that program every single time through,” said Mary Lynn Candella, recruitment and retention specialist for NFMMC. “She definitely does everything to make sure that the program teaches the students everything they need. They are given a real good overview of all the different professions and what the educational requirements are.”

Students also are enrolled in the Health Careers Summer Academy, a residential program that lets kids spend a week on the UB campus, learning more about dentistry, nursing and other medical-related fields.

“If we start earlier, expose them to the health care industry earlier and give them the tools earlier, they are more likely to be successful in school in a health care major,” Bivins said. “When you give them the experiences and give them the tools to be successful, they are.”

Bivins has been involved in many success stories during her time at AHEC which now has an alumni list that includes more than 300 student participants, several of whom have gone on to pursue degrees in psychology, nursing, psychology and other fields at NCCC, UB and Syracuse University.

Bivins credits her success in work and in life to her father, Ron Cunningham, and her mother, Barbara Bivins who she said always stressed the importance of getting a good education and giving back to the community in which she lives.

“I’m able to do what I do and am able to give so easily because of what has been given to me,” she said.

Two of Bivins’ children are now following their own careers in health care, including 22-year-old Monique, who is studying physical therapy at NCCC and 18-year-old Michia, who is enrolled in the dental hygiene program at NCCC. Bivins also has a 13-year-old son, Cortez.

“It’s just so exciting to me because I am always learning,” Bivins said of her work with AHEC. “I’m giving to all these kids what I would give to my own kids and that’s wonderful.”

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