Summer Health Professions Education Program immerses undergraduates in health care career opportunities

By Tyler Francischine

Even those college students with the deepest passion for pharmacy have one thing standing between them and completing the professional training program of their dreams: the oftentimes nerve-wracking, nuanced application and admissions process. With the goal of closing the gap between dedicated, driven students and health professions colleges, the UF Summer Health Professions Education Program, or SHPEP, offers college freshmen and sophomores an inside look into what’s required to embark upon a UF Health training program in pharmacy, medicine, nursing, dentistry, veterinary medicine or public health and health professions.

A national program that partners with 12 institutes of higher learning, SHPEP immerses students in case-based education and interprofessional opportunities across disciplines, with the goal of strengthening both academic proficiency and career development among students of backgrounds underrepresented in health professions. The program encourages applicants who identify as a first-generation college student or a first-generation health professional, as well as those who come from economically or educationally disadvantaged backgrounds. SHPEP scholars accepted into the program begin their journeys toward success in their applications and matriculation into health professions schools.

UF SHPEP’s 2024 offerings comprise six weeks of virtual and in-person training between May 13 and June 21. Students enrolled in the pharmacy career path learn firsthand from pharmacists working in community pharmacy, inpatient pediatric care and ambulatory care, as well as from pharmacy graduate students, who present a panel discussion on the do’s and don’ts of academic research. During a skills laboratory session on non-sterile compounding held on May 29, SHPEP scholar Christiana Youssef learned compounding techniques to make lip balm. She said the program is opening her eyes to the vast variety of career paths made possible with pharmacy training.

Seejah Stephens, left, assists Christiana Youssef, center, and her fellow SHPEP scholar during a skills laboratory session.

“I was inspired to join SHPEP because of my passion for health care and my desire to make an impact on the lives of others, specifically others who have gone through situations similar to mine or who have had different challenges growing up,” Youssef said. “Getting to hear from different pharmacists from ambulatory care to pediatrics and learning how many specialties there are within the field was surprising to me. I didn’t know all that you could do with a pharmacy degree.”

Rising third-year UF College of Pharmacy student Seejah Stephens is an ambassador for the 2024 UF SHPEP program, and he provides hands-on guidance to the scholars as they navigate the immersive course. The role feels like a full-circle moment for Stephens, who was a SHPEP scholar himself only five years ago.

“Seeing the students in the same seats as I was before, I definitely know how they’re feeling,” Stephens said. “I can relate to them and try to give them advice for the point they’re at with their careers.”

Stephens said the SHPEP training he received in 2019 still proves vital today in his studies as a UF pharmacy student.

“They give you a notebook during SHPEP, and my notebook was filled from the first page to the last. I called it my ‘Graduate School Bible.’ It was my guide for getting into pharmacy school. I feel like if I didn’t have that notebook filled with everything I learned during SHPEP, I wouldn’t be here today,” Stephens said. “I still have the book to this day. There are times now when I encounter things and I think, ‘Oh, I learned about this in SHPEP,” so I go back to my notebook, and I have all the information I need.”

UF College of Pharmacy Instructional Assistant Professor Janet Schmittgen, Pharm.D., served as the pharmacy pathway clinical lead for this year’s program, and she’s been involved in UF SHPEP since 2016, working alongside colleagues like Ivonne Ponicsan, M.A., assistant director of admissions in the UF College of Pharmacy Office of Student Affairs.

Schmittgen said she aims for SHPEP students to complete the program with a sense that they’re prepared and supported as they reach ever closer to applying to health professions graduate programs.

“I hope the students complete SHPEP with an appreciation for all the opportunities and career paths available in pharmacy. This program gives them an opportunity to develop their ideas for applying to pharmacy school. We work with them on doing personal statements and mock interviews,” Schmittgen said. “One of the most important things for these students to know is, don’t be afraid to reach out to others. Know that there are people out there who want to help you along your path to achieving your dreams.”

For more on how to apply to be a SHPEP scholar, visit

Highlights from UF SHPEP 2024

View photos from the 2024 UF SHPEP opening ceremony, a pharmacy panel discussion and a laboratory skills lab

Christiana Youssef and Janet Schmittgen in SHPEP skills lab