Wilmot Hosts Deaf High School Students for Internship, Inspiring New Career Possibilities

Aug. 13, 2021

Cortney McElroy is interested in a career in nursing, but as a young deaf adult, she didn’t know what was possible until this summer. 

A new internship program at UR Medicine’s Wilmot Cancer Institute introduced her to medical professionals who are deaf — and now she feels empowered to work toward that goal.

“It’s inspirational to me. I never thought I could be in this field. Before I went into the program, I thought maybe I could meet some deaf folks, some other people who work at the hospital, but I had no idea that that could be me,” she says. “And now seeing the folks here, I can chase my dream.”

Five students stand around a nurse practitioner and interpreters having a conversation.
Student interns, including Cortney McElroy (orange floral shirt), meet with a clinical team at Wilmot's Comprehensive Breast Care at Pluta.

This is the first year Wilmot has hosted the internship program in partnership with the Rochester School for the Deaf (RSD). This partnership makes sense as Rochester, N.Y., is home to one of the largest deaf communities in the world.

“Deaf people experience barriers in their education and job opportunities beginning at a very young age, creating very low representation in medicine and science – to the point that many do not realize these fields are even options for them,” says Wyatte Hall, Ph.D., a member of the Rochester deaf community, Wilmot’s Community Outreach & Engagement Office, and the Offices of Equity & Inclusion at the University of Rochester and the School of Medicine and Dentistry. “This program hopes to help change that through intentional outreach to local deaf high school students.”

The program also fits with Wilmot’s strategic goals to teach and mentor the next generation of scientists, clinicians and practitioners and to foster a love of science among early learners as well as throughout a person’s career.

“At Wilmot, we are working to create more opportunities and pathways for students of diverse backgrounds to get introduced to oncology. This is one example of a program helping us do that,” says Ruth O’Regan, M.D., URMC Chair of Medicine and associate director for Education and Career Development at Wilmot. “We are so delighted to have had such an inspiring and engaged group of students this first year and we look forward to continuing and expanding this program in future years.”

To develop this program, O'Regan, O'Dell, Hall and Carla Casulo, M.D., assistant director for Education and Career Development at Wilmot, collaborated with RSD leadership, including Sarah Gordon, dean of students, and Susan Ogden, principal.

Five students, an interpreter and a physician stand talking in a room with exercise equipment.
Student interns talk with Dr. Alissa Huston in the Pluta Integrative Oncology & Wellness Center.

It took place over four weeks, with each week exposing the six student interns to diverse areas of Wilmot: medical oncology and integrative oncology at Wilmot’s Pluta Cancer Center, surgery at Strong Memorial Hospital, a basic science research lab at Wilmot Cancer Center and the Community Outreach and Engagement Office at Wilmot. In each area, interns participated in short lectures, fireside chats with prominent deaf medical professionals and researchers from around the country, and shadowing experiences that provided students with a look at the diverse opportunities in medicine.

“They had never thought of these careers as open to them but through the experience and seeing deaf professionals in those roles, now they see they are,” says Nicole O’Dell, Ph.D., MLS, senior instructor in the Department of Microbiology & Immunology and one of the coordinators of the RSD summer internship program at Wilmot. “There are so many sub specialties they could explore. Even this is just a small piece of what they could go into.”

Young adult male wearing a mask listens intently to lecture, while a young woman sits behind him also listening.
Dylan Walshvelo listens to teachings given by Wilmot scientists.

For recent RSD graduate Dylan Walshvelo, who will begin at the Rochester Institute of Technology in the fall, the internship shifted his perspective. While he had planned to go in medicine already, he was more interested in pathology, but now he’s looking toward surgery. He says when he visited the operating room, he felt an adrenaline rush that can come with performing surgery. Also, meeting a few patients added an element that he hadn’t expected to be enjoyable.

“Seeing the patients, seeing what they’re going through, it’s sad but we’re helping them through. And trying to beat their cancer and prolong their lives,” he says.

Ailani Johnson, a rising senior at RSD, says she had been leaning toward cosmetology, but her experience being in a lab and learning from researchers like Paula Vertino, Ph.D., has made her think twice. Now, she’s considering a future career in the sciences.

“I think actually seeing cancer in the lab and talking about the cells and how they grow, how they divide and become a mass and then seeing that mass – hands on seeing it – has been interesting,” she says.

She learned life lessons, too. Meeting patients and learning about their stories impacted her. But perhaps most importantly, she witnessed what she could be capable of.

“And now that I know that I can do it,” she says, “I’m thinking more science.”

McElroy agrees. She already has a meeting on the calendar with someone from the University of Rochester School of Nursing to answer questions and discuss how to apply. She is excited for what is to come – and grateful for this internship program that helped her envision a potential future. 

“I’m pretty sure other people, when I tell them the things that we’ve done – going into the lab, meeting patients, going into the operating room — they’re going to be shocked at the experiences that we’ve had in this program so I definitely want more people to have this opportunity,” McElroy says. “If I’m a nurse next year here in the program then I’d love to be able to come back and say, this is my experience and this is possible all because of having this internship.”