Lake County program aims to inspire future health care workers

High school students gain hands-on medical experience at Advocate Condell

Chloe Miller locates the femoral pulse on the simulation mannequin

LIBERTYVILLE – Thanks to a unique volunteer program at Advocate Condell Medical Center, 18-year-old Chloe Miller already will have medical experience when she graduates from Wauconda High School this spring.

Miller joined 36 high school juniors and seniors ages 16 and older from throughout Lake County in the highly competitive Penwasciz Program. The more than 60-year-old program is named for three things a nurse always carries: a pen, watch and scissors.

Students chosen to take part in the seven-month program shadow health care personnel in both clinical and nonclinical roles across the hospital as part of two-hour weekly rotations at Advocate Condell in Libertyville.

“The whole program just made me realize how diverse the medical field is and how much there is to it,” said Miller, who hopes to be a physician assistant in dermatology. She is headed to the University of Minnesota in the fall to major in kinesiology as a pre-med student.

Miller heard about the Penwasciz Program at school and knew she wanted to apply. Students must fill out applications, write essays and go through an interview process to be accepted.

“With the whole personal interview, I really just tried to be myself,” said Miller, who already worked part time on the food and nutrition team at Advocate Condell. “Considering I already had a part-time job and I have a strong passion for medicine, I was beyond excited to hear about the opportunity. I knew it could help me gain more experience and knowledge on the career path I wanted to go on. I knew I wanted to give it my best shot.”

Of 306 applicants, only 37 students were accepted into the high-demand program. Historically, the program has drawn about 300 applicants a year.

“Kids these days are just so eager to get real-world experiences,” said Klaudia Areola, the program’s coordinator since 2016. A nurse since 2012, Aerola earned a master’s degree in nursing education and was asked to take over the program.

“I just really love it,” she said. “It’s nontraditional. You’re not in a classroom. You’re spending time with kids. They’re not being paid. They just want to come here and learn more. Being with that group of motivated high school students is really so rewarding.”

The Penwasciz Program started as a way to draw more area students from Mundelein and Libertyville into nursing with the idea that they would come back to work in the community once educated, Areola said.

Through the years, it has expanded to include all fields of health care and students from throughout Lake County, she said. The program was on pause for a couple of years because of the pandemic but was resurrected last year.

“This is a community program, something we really value,” Areola said. “It’s nice to see some of these people do come back to the county and service their community and live in this community. It makes it that more special. This is your home.”

Every week is different for the students, who are given opportunities to interact with patients and shadow a variety of people in the medical fields.

“What I really love about the program is that I think it just opens kids up to really understanding and meeting people of different socioeconomic backgrounds,” Areola said.

A 16-year-old could interact with a 90-year-old with a completely different background, she said.

Even if the students who take part don’t end up going into the health care field, they become more empathetic and learn life skills, she said.

During a recent hands-on session, students participated in a birth and performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation and automated external defibrillator rescues in a simulation lab. On April 29, they will celebrate completion of the program with a formal graduation ceremony.

Drawn to dermatology because of her experiences with dermatologists, Miller enjoyed learning about the many different career opportunities in health care, from technicians to therapists, dietitians, administrators and assistants.

“I think most people only think about surgery and physicians,” she said. “There are so many other medical providers that contribute.”

Aerola expects the program and health care providers in general to continue to be in high demand as the population lives longer. As the medical care fields advance, more people with chronic diseases are able to live active lives longer, she said.

“With that, there is going to be a need for nurses, physicians, PAs [physician assistants], respiratory therapists and others,” she said. “Hopefully, our students do decide to go into health care and make an impact.”