USC Med-COR celebrates 50 years of preparing local teens for college and health professions

USC Med-COR celebrates 50 years of preparing local teens for college and health professions

At the conclusion of the summer program, each student receives a certificate of completion. (Photo/Kairos Llobrera)


Francisco Rodriguez’s job is to recognize and actualize potential.

As the advisor for USC’s Medical Counseling, Organizing, and Recruiting (Med-COR) program, he has spent the last two and a half decades introducing local high schoolers to the health care field and cultivating them for collegiate and professional success.

“I try to recruit the students I know have potential, but need a little push,” Rodriguez says of his annual visits to Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet School and Orthopaedic Medical Magnet School. There he speaks to freshmen about Med-COR’s tutoring and mentorship opportunities and encourages them to apply. Almost all the students Rodriguez meets are from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. If they do matriculate to college, many will be the first in their families to do so.

Selecting an incoming Med-COR class can be challenging, Rodriguez says, but between participating in Med-COR himself as a high schooler in the 1980s, serving as a tutor after college, and now staffing the program, he has developed a discerning eye for the right candidates.

Med-COR boasts a 99% college matriculation rate amongst its graduates, and based on 2012-2020 data, 88% of those students enroll in four-year universities. These rates differ starkly from those of the general LAUSD graduating senior cohort: Only around 70% of them pursue a college education, and a mere 25% earn a college degree within six years, according to a 2017 UCLA and Claremont Graduate University study. It’s not uncommon for Med-COR graduates to matriculate to the nation’s top universities, and their alumni network is decorated with successful medical professionals working in all spheres of health care. This year, the program celebrates 50 years of investing in students’ futures and providing the resources necessary for success.

USC Med-COR celebrates 50 years of preparing local teens for college and health professions


Med-COR was founded in 1970 by Dr. John Davis, who sought to increase college matriculation among inner-city Los Angeles students and encourage minority teens to consider the health professions. At its peak, the program bussed in more than a thousand LAUSD high school students from 77 schools to USC’s main campus for tutoring. Med-COR’s reach spanned from the San Fernando Valley south to Carson, and from Westchester to East L.A. Following school district budget cuts, the program consolidated and now recruits around 100 students from schools directly neighboring USC’s two campuses. The Keck School of Medicine of USC and USC’s Good Neighbors Campaign have provided the funding necessary to maintain what has become a longstanding and impactful hallmark of USC’s involvement in its neighboring communities — and thanks to their support, participation in Med-COR is free for all students.

Med-COR works primarily with local Hispanic and African American students — whose communities make up only 5.8% and 5% of all active physicians, respectively — though they accept students from all backgrounds. “There is a special emphasis on training more future clinicians from communities of color, because research shows that when your doctor looks like you and shares your background, you as the patient are more likely to accept and follow your doctor’s guidelines and suggestions,” says Kairos Llobrera, PhD, assistant professor of clinical medical education and director of diversity and inclusion programs within the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at the Keck School of Medicine.

Representation matters, but it can be exceedingly difficult for minority students without physicians in their families to break the mold and become doctors. That’s where Med-COR comes in.

The program offers grade- and course-specific tutoring, covers PSAT and SAT preparation, advises students on their college applications, and demystifies the process of applying for financial aid. During the summer, the students participate in a six-week clinical volunteering program at Keck Hospital, where they learn to perform the work of a certified nursing assistant; in the evenings, Rodriguez administers an SAT preparatory course that often raises students’ scores by 150 to 200 points in just four weeks.

“I don’t have any family members who are in the health care field, and I didn’t really even know anybody in health careers, so I applied to the Med-COR program to get that exposure,” says Lisa Ly Avalos, MD, who grew up in Lincoln Heights and participated in Med-COR with her now-husband, Jose Avalos, MD. The two persevered side-by-side through college at UC Berkeley and medical school at UCLA, and they now practice family medicine at Kaiser Permanente while raising four children. “Med-COR was a big stepping stone and an eye-opening experience to make me feel confident I could succeed in medicine.”

Jose Avalos grew up in South Los Angeles, and while his immigrant parents provided immense love and support at home, by the time he reached sixth grade he had surpassed their academic achievement. He was the first in his family to earn a high school diploma, let alone college and medical degrees, and he attests that Med-COR helped him break down barriers and make the possibility of pursuing medicine a tangible reality.

“Med-COR helps students navigate a system that they don’t know anything about and provides the academic guidance that parents often aren’t able to provide,” Jose Avalos says. “There are a lot of kids with dreams, but they don’t have a pathway to achieve those dreams. It’s not that they don’t have the capacity to do it, but without guidance, it becomes really tough. Med-COR provides that pathway to achieve your dream.”

Both physicians speak to the essence of Med-COR and the element that makes the program so impactful in students’ lives: The program staff and tutors excel at making students believe they’re capable of accomplishing their goals, and that they will be met with the academic and emotional support necessary to cross the finish line victoriously.

“From the first day of the program, Med-COR really makes you feel like you are part of a family and you are supported. They go above and beyond,” says Jaklin Gukasyan, who participated in Med-COR with her twin sister Janet while attending Van Nuys High School. They matriculated to UC Berkeley directly after high school and graduated in three years. They have been serving as Med-COR tutors since 2017 while working as research assistants at UCLA and USC laboratories, respectively. Both Gukasyan sisters plan to start medical school in the fall.

“Med-COR was one of the biggest influences that made me want to become a doctor,” Jaklin says, tracing her interest in medicine back to Med-COR’s annual health professions career that fairs she and her sister attended throughout high school. “Med-COR brought in people from our own background who went to medical school or pursued other healthcare careers, which made us feel so motivated to pursue medicine as well. It made us feel like it was possible for us, too.”

The twins were the first in their family to matriculate to a four-year college directly after high school, and they credit their Med-COR advisors and tutors with providing the support, guidance and inspiration that led them to apply to and ultimately attend UC Berkeley. “It was such a big change for the entire family,” Jaklin says, explaining that the Med-COR advisors worked with the entire family to ease the transition and help the girls’ parents feel comfortable sending their daughters away to college.

“There are so many students who need help involving their families, and who even need help themselves to believe they can succeed and believe that health care is an option for them,” Jaklin adds. “Med-COR allows people without the resources to gain those resources, and not only that, but to gain a family and role models along the way.”

Rodriguez says that throughout his many years facilitating the program, seeing his students embark on their college journeys remains some of his fondest memories and keeps him committed to Med-COR’s mission. “The reason that I work for this program is that I love to see these students grow, from when I meet them as eighth graders and they’re really shy and quiet, to when I see them mature into very confident seniors,” Rodriguez says. “Then they tell me all the schools they’ve been accepted to, and it just makes me so proud to have had a little something to do with their success.”

Moving into the second half of a century of service, the Med-COR team hopes to expand their program to support a larger pool of deserving students throughout their high school careers and beyond. Llobrera says that with additional funding for the program, he would ideally hope to create a Med-COR scholarship to continue supporting the program’s alumni into their college years. “We’ve been solid in pursuing our mission over the years, and that’s something that I feel really great about,” Llobrera says. “Our commitment to our students remains strong, and hopefully moving forward, we’ll be able to make our program even stronger.”

Members of the Keck community are always welcome to help mentor Med-COR students — whether it’s for a day or part of a longer-term commitment — says Med-COR program director Joyce Richey, PhD, associate professor of clinical physiology & neuroscience, associate dean for Diversity and Inclusion (Education), and chief diversity officer of the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

Donna Elliott, MD, EdD, who serves as chair of the Department of Medical Education and vice dean for medical education, personally hosted Med-COR students in her clinic during the summers for more than two decades, and says her experiences were deeply rewarding. “It was always wonderful to see their enthusiasm for learning about the medical field. Med-COR remains a very important pipeline program to ensure that talented students do not get lost in the educational system.”

Dr. Tamara N. Chambers, MD, another Med-COR success story, is living proof of the way an early investment in a student’s education can affect the trajectory of that teen’s life and lay the foundation for future achievements: Chambers participated in Med-COR from 8th to 12th grade and is now an assistant professor of clinical otolaryngology-head & neck surgery at the Keck School, chief of the Department of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery, associate director of Perioperative Services, and medical director of Speech & Audiology at LAC+USC Medical Center.

“I am grateful to Dr. Davis’s vision to expose inner-city youth, like myself and my sister, to health care professionals and medical students on a college campus,” Chambers says. “Rather than following the desolate path of many in South Central Los Angeles, he instilled in us a belief that there was a community of minority health care professionals, and that we, too, could succeed. Armed with math and science, Med-COR led us on a crusade out of the ghettos of Los Angeles. Undoubtedly, the ripple effect of Med-COR will surpass generations.”

— by Alexandra Demetriou