Flickinger mentors youth, shares secrets of success

Sister Grace Mary Flickinger was at first skeptical of the group of visitors from New Haven who approached her to find out how Xavier University in New Orleans, where she teaches, was so successful in preparing minority high school students for careers in medical-related fields.

Claudia Merson, director of the public school partnership for the Yale Office of New Haven and State Affairs, and several officials from Hill Regional Career High School first approached Flickinger in 1997 hoping to replicate Xavier’s tremendously successful programs for New Orleans public high school students. Since then, Flickinger has been visiting New Haven every fall to advise Career High School students on college admissions and pursuing careers in medicine.

Flickinger, a Roman Catholic nun who has worked at Xavier for 38 years, said she often fields questions from visitors who are more interested in the nightlife and attractions of New Orleans than in the programs she runs. But the visitors from New Haven were different. Recognizing the New Haven students’ need for a mentor, she was on a plane bound for the Elm City within a few months. Flickinger said she has enjoyed contributing to Career’s mission for the past nine years.

“It’s been a very good relationship,” she said. “They understand what it takes to educate students, some of whom are high risk.”

Merson said Flickinger was excited to work with Career High School because its goals were similar to the goals she had been pursuing for decades in New Orleans.

“She fell in love with the high school,” Merson said “We are all part of this pipeline that really believes in getting minority students into the medical profession.”

Since the late 1970s, Xavier, a historically black, Catholic university that is known for sending many of its graduates to medical school, has run a program called Stress on Analytical Reasoning (SOAR) for New Orleans high school students. In the past 30 years, SOAR has grown tremendously.

When the delegation from New Haven arrived in New Orleans in 1997, they were interested in developing programs at Career and at Yale to help New Haven public school students excel in medical-related fields, Merson said.

In addition to a host of programs that bring Career High seminar students to the Yale Medical School to dissect cadavers with medical students and attend workshops, Yale started a summer program that brings 60 Career High students to campus for three weeks during the summer to study science. The program was inspired in part by Xavier’s hugely successful summer programs.

Career High School’s growing list of formal programs and relationships with institutions of higher learning mirror its growth as a school. Since its inception in 1983, it has grown to accommodate over 700 students. Like all New Haven magnet schools, admission is based on a lottery. Career students who are interested in pursuing medicine can choose from a range of related courses, many of which include class time and lectures at Yale-New Haven Hospital, the Medical School and the School of Nursing.

Flickinger, who teaches courses in general biology and embryology in addition to advising students at Xavier, said that success in the sciences can often be elusive for discouraged minority students.

“Many of them get the idea that black folk aren’t as smart as white folk, and that’s not true,” she said.

Since Flickinger first talked to Career High School students about college admissions and career choices in 1997, a handful of students from Career High have attended Xavier. Nicole Forbes, who graduated from Career High in 1998 and from Xavier in 2002, said Flickinger’s sincere, no-nonsense approach to pushing those whom she mentored to succeed contributed to Forbes’ academic and career successes.

After graduating, Forbes took a job at Yale-New Haven Hospital as a patient care associate. She now helps with liver research at the Medical School and has applied to nursing schools. After she first met Flickinger in the 11th grade, Forbes said, Flickinger became her faculty adviser for three of her four years at Xavier.

“Sister Grace was tough — she didn’t play,” Forbes said. “She said what she had to say. You might cry, but she was telling you because she cared. She was always there to help me.”

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