Targeting Hope with Student Michael Okoreeh

Pritzker students often volunteer with local mentoring and tutoring organizations such as the Chicago Youth Program or the South Side Science Scholars. MD-PhD candidate Michael Okoreeh was recently recognized for his work with Target HOPE, an educational organization for minority high school students in Chicago. Staff member Rebecca Silverman sat down with Michael to hear more.

Tell me a little bit about Target HOPE.
Target HOPE is an organization started over a decade ago by Euclid Williamson. It is a mentorship and educational enrichment program that provides inner-city high school students with guidance and extra advising through high school and into college. Additionally, a secondary focus teaches participants how to succeed once they are in college. There is a “senior seminar” portion which teaches seniors what to expect when they matriculate: how to interact with faculty, how to adjust being in a larger student body, picking majors, managing money, loans—things I was not prepared for when I went off to college. Life skills.

The program is run once a week. In addition to the senior seminar component, there is an English communications portion which helps students with public speaking and personal statement construction, and also with bigger-picture skills like talking about social justice issues in Chicago. Finally, there is a STEM portion that I run with Daniel Ruiz (a graduate student in the BSD studying metabolism). We try to teach students basic scientific knowledge, and we also do different experiments and touch on social justice and environmental justice issues that can impact health. I do a lot by myself, but I have a lot of friends whom I can call on to teach Target HOPE students about specific areas that I may not be an expert in. Inviting guests to teach also helps widen the network of people students know.

How did you get involved?
I got involved in the most random way! It actually played a big role in me choosing to come to Pritzker for medical school as well. During my year off [between college and graduate school], I was working in the lab that I am now working in for my PhD. I had been a participant in some pipeline programs at UChicago; a connection from my first summer here was the STEM leader for Target HOPE. She invited me to be on a panel she was leading right around the time I was deciding where to go to medical school. Through that panel, I learned more about the program. Afterwards, all of these students were taking my number and getting in contact with me, which was really cool. I realized that coming to Pritzker would give me a great opportunity to be here as both a mentor and a student.

At first, I assisted a graduate student who asked me to take over; I did a few classes on healthcare disparities and a math lesson. When the graduate student left, I stepped up to take her position. Daniel came along as well and we've been curriculum partners for two years.

Had you done previous mentoring and tutoring at other points in your life?
In undergrad, I was a teaching assistant for a class. I have always done teaching or mentorship, but this is my most official role. The roles I had in college gave me the confidence to believe I could do this.

Do you hope to incorporate teaching into your future career?
I have a lot to learn from Euclid. He built this program from nothing, seeing that bright students in Chicago were missing something. I would like to at least have my own program like Target HOPE. Of course, I wish the need were not as great, but having a role to connect people of color with other mentors so they can see a future that they didn't think was possible—I could see that.

I would like to see more underrepresented minorities in STEM, whether they're physicians or professors. Seeing somebody that looks like you doing something that you didn't think you could do is life-changing. I want to give direction to people who are on that road.

STEM education and employment can sometimes seem like a broad term. Is there anything you focus on specifically? Or anything particular within STEM education that you find your students are not receiving from the city’s public schools?
I started out with more practical knowledge like chemistry and fundamental principles of biology, but to pique their attention more, I started doing experiments. There's a cool hot ice experiment that forms a crystal before your eyes, which is really engaging. Daniel does environmental justice, so he will talk about how water is filtered and gets into our tap. Then I came in and talked about how filtration impacts health, who sets standards for clean water, and how those standards differ across neighborhoods and countries. I try to make science impact their lives more broadly. Recently we've been talking about the situation in Puerto Rico and the effects of the hurricane.

It seems like the alumni network of Target HOPE is particularly robust. What function does the alumni network play after students have matriculated into the next phase of their education?
Target HOPE is Chicago-based, but they have a large network. When students go to college, they set up networks around those schools to support each other. Schools in the Midwest and historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have chapters. However, the weekly program is just in Chicago and we meet at Chicago State University.

What outcomes have you seen from your work and the work of Target HOPE? I've only been doing it for going on two years now, so the class I started with is still there. However, Miciah—the student in the photo—has been my biggest success story. My roommate and I helped him apply to colleges and gave him advice on his personal statement… that was really rewarding. He is now a sophomore at the University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign.

This is definitely a team effort and everyone who comes through to help is appreciated.