With the launch of the Ladder Program at the University of Wisconsin, a new chapter in education opened this month in Dane County.

The culmination of a year-long project driven by the UW Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, the Ladder Program aims to provide students of diverse backgrounds from the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County with a hands-on learning experience in medical fields.

The UW School of Medicine and Public Health worked closely with the University of Minnesota to bring the Ladder Program, inspired by a program of the same name and nature at UMN, to Madison. Alex Gagnon, the vice president of school-based education at the Dane County Boys and Girls Club, said UW aims to educate young students on campus.

“It’s really a diverse curriculum … It covers a broad range of content from biology, to neuroscience, to radiology, to cardiology, to orthopedics,” Gagnon said. “We know our students have an interest in this sector, and we hope this continues to motivate them to pursue their aspirations. We want students to be able to dive into content that fascinates them.”

The Ladder Program teaches students a specific lesson in medicine during a session, and each session will cover a new topic in the medical field, Gagnon said.

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But Brian Gittens, associate dean for human resources, equity, and inclusion at UW Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, said the Ladder Program includes more than teaching young people facts and figures related to medicine. It also explores the various paths students can follow to enter the medical field, and discusses the value of hard work, perseverance and dedication.

“A big part of our role is diversity and inclusion … [the students] get to interact with a diverse group of people and get a sense that, ‘This is for me, too … ’ It’s about breaking down barriers to education,” Gittens said. 

Similar sentiments were expressed by Jasmine Zapata, a pediatrician, preventative medicine and public health doctor who founded the Beyond Beautiful International Youth Empowerment Movement and is the co-director of the Wisconsin Ladder Program.

Zapata said she worked closely with Renee Circhlow, founder of the UMN Ladder, while starting the program in Madison.

“It’s key to see mentors in the fields of science that look like you … I did not get to meet any doctors of color until I was well into my high school and college years,” Zapata said. “I’m so excited that we get to water that seed and provide that fertile ground [for children of diverse backgrounds].”

The Ladder Program, still in its pilot year, plans to hold sessions on a monthly basis for the next year and intends to take feedback and make necessary changes between year one and year two, Gagnon said.

Additionally, the Ladder will begin considering possibilities for growth both in the number of enrolled students and the scope of the program itself, Gittens said.

“We’ll explore expanding after the second year,” Gittens said. “We’re hoping to have twice as many or three times as many kids enrolled.”

Zapata said the Ladder Program is in the process of making partnerships with several organizations in Dane County. However, some of the expansions to the Ladder Program described by Gittens and Zapata may come from the ground up, given the structure of the program itself.

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The program is built on the idea that students will start learning in elementary school and continue through high school, at which point they may return to it and serve as mentors and role models for the next generation of students, Gittens said.

“Having a community of mentorship is very important,” Gagnon said. “We’re trying to create that.”

That peer mentorship is intended by design to provide students with concrete, relatable role models and inspire children of diverse backgrounds to pursue their ambitions in both medical and STEM fields, Zapata and Gittens said.

For now, the UW Ladder Program is primarily focused on middle school students. However, the program is both projected and intended to continue aiming even more content towards elementary and high schoolers as it grows, Gagnon said.

“We want kids to see that a career in medicine is exciting and impactful and something they can achieve … and that we are rooting for them,” Zapata said.