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Students take aspirations to national level

This coming June, four students from Pagosa Springs High School will attend the Health Occupations Students of America national conference and competition in Orlando, Fla.

The competition will involve skills challenges in many areas of health care, will require the students to abide by a strict dress code during the event, and will help these Pagosa Springs teenagers gain knowledge and experience towards a future career as a health professional.

According to the 2010 National Leadership Conference guide, Health Occupations Students of America, or HOSA, is the only student organization that is 100 percent health care and is committed to building a pipeline of health care professionals. Founded in 1978, the organization has over 110,000 members in all but three states. Inscribed in the state competition medals worn proudly by four Pagosa Springs High School students is the HOSA emblem: a circle to represent the continuity of health care; a triangle to represent the three aspects of humankind’s well-being — social, physical and mental; and white hands to signify the caring of each HOSA member. Each of the four PSHS students who attended the state competition and qualified for nationals are hoping to pursue a post-graduation career in a health field.

“We take a test first, then demonstrate skills and are judged,” recounts Danielle Pajak who is contemplating a career in pharmacology, although she is not sure yet. For the state HOSA competition in Medical Assisting, one of the two events in which she qualified for nationals, Danielle was asked to demonstrate how she would work with a patient and ask questions about their medical history. She read a paper that she was presented by the judge who then told her, “Now I’m the patient.” Danielle was scored on her ability to ask relevant questions and even donned her exam gloves as she went through her routine.

Students who compete at the state level can choose from 10 to 12 predetermined events and are then randomly selected for three at the competition. The events include such topics as Clinical Nursing, Physical Therapy, Forensics, Vet Assisting and Epidemiology, and the students learn the necessary skills by reading books, speaking with mentors and working as interns with local professionals. Although Danielle did not have a mentor in the health profession, local HOSA chapter advisor and PSHS teacher Cindy Nobles offered assistance and Danielle placed second at state in both Medical Assisting and Pharmacology. The hours she spent online and reading books helped her prepare for the skills tests that dealt with how to give prescriptions, including correct dosage calculations.

“For my tests, it was mostly studying,” she says.

Daryn Butler, a junior at PSHS, competed at the state competition and qualified for nationals for the second year in a row. She has been working with a mentor, dental hygienist Maddie Beserra, to help with the Dental Assisting event where she earned a first place. Daryn also works part time with Beserra at a local clinic, which was a huge help for the competition.

“I had to do a patient education skill on a typodont,” Daryn says, and explains that a typodont is an artificial model of the mouth. “Last year it was a real person.” Her skills test also included instrument identification where she was presented with real dental instruments and had to name each one.

To qualify for the HOSA national competition, state competitors in certain events like Dental Assisting must place first through third and also acquire a “with mastery” designation. For these specific events, the students’ scores on the written portion that they completed before the event is included and then combined with the skills tests that they perform in front of judges at the state competition. In other events, the scores that were received to qualify for the state competition are wiped clean and the students start the skills competition with a clean slate. 14 students from PSHS qualified for the state competition after their preliminary written tests, and four of them earned a “with mastery” designation in their top three rankings at state, earning them a trip to nationals.

Sophomore Eli Velasquez placed second with mastery in Physical Therapy. Along with Daryn, Eli has been studying forensics with the local coroner.

“I haven’t had any mentors say no to helping the kids,” Nobles says, and she commends the local health professionals for their work with the students. “Our kids are mentored,” she adds. “Other high schools on the front range have vocational programs in the school.” Nobles has seen some schools that have on-campus student clinics where community residents can visit and receive free care in a variety of health-related fields.

Denise Espinosa, a PSHS junior, worked the entire first semester of this school year as a volunteer at a local family practice medical clinic. She was involved in front office work, as well as working with the nurses.

“I got to see how they answer the phones,” she says, which came in handy on the skills portion of her tests. To earn a trip to nationals, Denise placed third with mastery in Medical Assisting. She also placed in the top 10 along with Danielle and fellow student Tino Lister in the Biomedical Debate team competition.

For the national competition in Orlando, all HOSA students are required to adhere to a strict dress code. At all of the conference general sessions, students must wear either an official HOSA uniform, or a black or navy blue suit with a white shirt and closed-toe black or blue shoes. Male members must wear a tie and female members may choose to wear a knee-length skirt or slacks. According to the official conference guide, students who fail to adhere to these rules will not be admitted to the general sessions. At the actual competitions, each event has a dress code guideline that is specified in the orientation and points are awarded for appropriate attire. Tags or badges that identify a student, school or state are not allowed.

The HOSA National Conference and competition has an interesting history that begins in 1976. According to the HOSA Web site, the founders initially believed that HOSA should sponsor leadership development programs and activities, not “contests.” No competitive events were included in the original Bylaws. But as new states were chartered, the organization received numerous requests for competitive experiences and in 1978, the first Competitive Events Committee was appointed prior to the leadership conference. Four events were implemented during the First Annual Leadership Conference in Oklahoma in 1978. The first events focused on leadership, speaking and job seeking skills. By the second National Leadership Conference in New Jersey, three more events were added. By 1982, competitive demonstration events began expanding into many health-related fields to reflect the diversity of the growing number of HOSA members. Currently, there are six event categories at the national competition: Health Science, Health Professions, Emergency Preparedness, Leadership, Teamwork and Recognition.

Locally, it wasn’t until the last school year that PSHS started a HOSA chapter. Nobles explains that to meet the needs of students who had an interest in the medical profession, the high school added a medical skills class. A few students tried it out and three were given part-time jobs in the community after their experience.

“The program is opening doors for our students,” says Nobles, a long time Pagosa Springs teacher and mother of two PSHS graduates, one of whom is pursuing a career in medicine. Nobles was key in bringing a local HOSA chapter to our area, and along with only the Grand Junction chapter, Colorado’s western slope will be represented by our own national qualifiers at the June competition in Orlando.

Of the 14 Pagosa Springs students who competed at the February HOSA State Leadership Conference in Denver, four qualified for nationals and another three earned a position in the top three in their events. Amber Hanley earned second in Clinical Nursing, and Alix Herrera and Tino Lister placed third in EMT. For all of the students who had the opportunity to participate, their path to a career in the health field is becoming clearer.

I want to be a Maxillofacial Oral Surgeon,” declares Daryn, who will be competing in her second national HOSA competition. “It’s basically advanced surgery on your mouth,” she says, “and I can learn how to reconstruct a whole jawline.” Denise, a junior, is interested in radiology and possibly nursing. The national conference is a great way to meet and network with other students who share their same goals.

Although the high school paid for the students to attend the state conference in Denver through budget and grant funds, there is no money in the school budget for the national conference, which means Nobles and the students will have to pay their own way.

In the coming months, HOSA will seek funding from local sponsors to help with trip costs, and the students will host a benefit dinner with delicious Mexican food and live music on April 10 at the Parish Hall.

For more information about HOSA, visit the national Web site at, or contact Nobles at 264-2231, Ext. 227, or

Donations are much needed and gratefully accepted and can be mailed to PSHS, attn: Cindy Nobles, PO Box 1498, Pagosa Springs, CO 81147.