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Regional Education Academy for Careers in Health – Higher Education Initiative (REACH-HEI)



REACH-HEI Success Story: Jessiel Castillo

Regional Education Academy for Careers in Health - Higher Education Initiative (REACH-HEI) is an out-of-school program that provides academic enrichment opportunities, including mentoring by medical and graduate students, for low-income and/or first-generation-to-college students in northeastern and central Pennsylvania and enables them to succeed in health-related professions.

REACH-HEI is a longitudinal program with a proven track record of success. All high school participants have completed high school with nearly 90% continuing to college, often the first in their family. In 2017, the first cohort of high school students graduated from universities, three have been admitted to medical school, two of which were admitted to Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine. 34 of our 75 undergraduate students have been admitted to medical schools, including our own, and the remainder completed their pursuit of health-related professions.  


Education has been variously compared to lighting a fire, to sculpting or to growing a garden. Though the images vary, the concept described – something dormant being brought to life, something latent and waiting for the proper stimulus to bloom – is the same. Metaphorically we recognize that while everyone is born with the power to reason, to create and to imagine, that power comes with an external switch. It needs something or someone to come along and turn it on.

Education is the cornerstone of a healthy community. Numerous studies have shown that health benefits of education accrue at both the individual and community level. More importantly, education is the vehicle that lifts people out of poverty and leads them to achieve their full potential. In addition, northeastern and central Pennsylvania is in dire need of healthcare professionals to fill in the growing workforce gap generated by an aging workforce and compounded by increased demands on the health system. For these reasons, REACH-HEI has been an important public initiative of Geisinger Commonwealth virtually since its founding.  

For more than 700 first generation to college or economically disadvantaged students, REACH-HEI has been that switch. REACH-HEI, fueled by medical and graduate students, provides local intermediate and high school students with the inspiration, motivation and pathway to health related professions, especially medicine. Launched by Ida L. Castro, JD with initial Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) funding, REACH-HEI provides experiential learning opportunities that expand regional youth’s curiosity, life science knowledge and college readiness.

REACH-HEI’s main vision was to be a catalyst for underserved students, first-generation-to-college students - our area is growing more diverse and so must our higher education. The program was specifically designed to find and support the students most in need of encouragement. High achievers, no matter their background, were clearly already inspired. REACH-HEI sought the student earning middling grades with minimal effort – the student who, if properly motivated, would find and free his or her untapped potential. 


REACH-HEI has worked with many school districts and university partners, including:

  • Hazleton
  • Wilkes-Barre
  • Scranton
  • East Stroudsburg
  • Wallenpaupack
  • Western Wayne
  • East Stroudsburg University
  • King’s College
  • Misericordia University
  • Luzerne County Community College
  • Lackawanna College

Program elements

  • Free for selected students in grades 8-12
  • An engaging health sciences curriculum
  • Required community service and leadership experiences
  • College and career counseling
  • Mentoring by Geisinger Commonwealth medical and graduate students
  • Advanced integration of educational technology
  • Exposure to state-of-the-art laboratories and simulation center
  • Extensive job shadowing program
  • College academic skills readiness in research, writing and reading

Proven results

  • Increased performance in life sciences
  • Enhanced skills in:
    • Hands-on and group learning experiences
    • Cooperative learning
    • Effective study habits
    • Time management
    • Critical thinking
    • Problem solving
  • Improved SAT/ACT performance
  • Students who completed the program:
    • 100% graduated from high school
    • 88% attended 4-year colleges or universities in Pennsylvania
    • 80% of students are first generation to attend college
    • Many students entered undergraduate pre-med or health-related programs
  • 40% of our undergraduate students have attended medical schools, including Geisinger Commonwealth.
  • Students have won scholarships at:
    • Albright College
    • Susquehanna University
    • Pennsylvania State University
    • Temple University
    • Lehigh University
    • The University of Scranton
    • And many other universities


REACH-HEI received a $2.3 million HRSA grant and launched its signature high school and middle school programs, in addition to programs for undergraduate college students and medical school pre-matriculants.

High school program: To be eligible, students had to meet the federal guidelines defining economically and educationally disadvantaged status. Most students accepted met both criteria. The students attended the summer internship program every day for four weeks. After this initial program, the students continued to attend health education and career programs one Saturday per month, in addition to online classes, mentoring, job shadowing, community outreach and career/college counseling. All received guidance throughout college entrance and graduation.

Undergraduate program: Using the same guidelines for acceptance as the high school program, the REACH-HEI undergraduate program included 81 students who were sophomores and juniors in college. The six-week summer research program emphasized bench, clinical and community research. The students produced poster projects and participated in workshops designed to help them secure a career in health or to gain entrance into graduate or medical school. With an emphasis on community outreach participants helped to mentor younger REACH-HEI students. After the conclusion of the formal program, the students were offered mentoring and support until their graduation.

Pre-matriculate program: The pre-matriculate program was an eight-week summer research internship program offered to underrepresented in medicine and disadvantaged students. The program was designed to help students adjust to the social, environmental and academic challenges of medical school by providing mentoring, workshops and counseling services. Students also participated in research internships during the summer. In addition, the pre-matriculate students mentored younger REACH-HEI students.

Due to massive federal cutbacks in pipeline programs, HRSA did not issue new calls for proposals. However, the Hazleton School District chose to fund the program for three additional years for students in the Hazleton Academy of the Sciences which included Saturday sessions, online classes, mentoring, job shadowing, career and college guidance.

In addition to the ongoing Hazleton program, the Scranton Area Foundation provided a grant for a REACH-HEI program for Scranton School District students in grades 9 - 10 who expressed an interest in a health profession called “HELP,” or Health Education Leadership Program. Students attended Saturday sessions for one school year. The program also included online classes, mentoring, job shadowing, career and college guidance.

REACH-HEI continued for Hazleton students while efforts to seek funding continued. The Hazleton students presented research projects to the school board at a meeting attended by Hazleton Academy of the Sciences benefactor.

Impressed with the progress of the Hazleton students, PPL Foundation provided a grant to support REACH-HEI students in both the Hazleton and the Scranton school districts. Made possible by the Scranton School District’s “adopt a school” program, REACH-HEI relaunched the middle school program that was an important part of the original concept in the fall of 2016. Geisinger Commonwealth adopted its next-door neighbor, Northeast Intermediate School. Thirty-seven eighth graders meeting REACH-HEI criteria enrolled in the program. To augment the “mini-medical school” in which the students participate, 32 students also received mentoring through Geisinger Commonwealth medical students via Big Brothers/Big Sisters. In addition, the school's Latino Medical Student Association and Student National Medical Association offered individual tutoring and mentoring to seventh graders at Northeast Intermediate School.

With the Northeast Intermediate School and Hazleton programs underway REACH-HEI extends its reach once again to Scranton High School and establishes its high school program. An additional workplace development grant was obtained to provide an Allied Health Careers program for Scranton High School students, who are interested in two-year degrees in the health field. Students receive job shadowing, intensive career study, mentoring and dual credit coursework. Geisinger Commonwealth also received a Center of Excellence award and re-established its high school and undergraduate summer programs for underserved in medicine populations.


REACH-HEI is approved to receive contributions through Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program. For information, contact Jane Kanyock at

Learn more about REACH-HEI

Maureen Murtha 
REACH-HEI Program Administrator