Dream Job

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Cristal Espinal was nervous.

She was about to administer her very first vaccine as a medical assistant at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Espinal was well trained, but she also knew how most kids feel about shots, and she wondered how the 5-year-old patient gazing up at her would react. To her surprise, the child remained calm for the quick procedure. As she was leaving, the little girl ran up to Espinal at the nurses’ station and happily told her: “I hope I’ll see you again!”

“My heart was filled with joy,” Espinal recalls.

It’s a statement about her feelings at that moment — but she could just as well be speaking about her unique introduction to CHOP.

‘Is this for real?’

Dream Job Medical assistants Iris Coyomatzi (left) and Cristal Espinal care for young CHOP patient Ronniel. In early 2023, CHOP made a bold, sweeping promise to Franklin Learning Center, a public high school in Philadelphia: The hospital would hire every graduating student from the school’s Certified Medical Assistant Program. Every student. What’s more, to support the transition from school to work, CHOP would create a six-month fellowship program to provide training and mentorship for the new recruits.

For Iris Coyomatzi, one of the students who jumped at the opportunity, “it was a game changer.” Despite an interest in working with children, Coyomatzi hadn’t seriously considered applying to CHOP because she assumed landing a job there would be next to impossible. Instead, she found open doors and an abundance of support.

An inspired plan

Leaders from many areas of CHOP were instrumental in shaping the medical assistant fellowship program, including the students’ frontline mentors, Sophia Collins, MSN, RN, program coordinator for the Community Nurse Advocacy Fellowship Program, and Kenyatta Parker, a talent acquisition lead for Human Resources. From initial Q&A sessions at the high school through interviewing, onboarding, training and finally starting on the job, Collins and Parker were there for the new hires — listening, counseling and advocating.

“We’ve been able to talk to the students and really listen to them,” Parker says. “They understand they have a purpose here.”

For Coyomatzi, the support at the start of her career has been invaluable. “I am so grateful for the guidance,” she says. “The fellowship helped me feel safe.”

In addition to frequent informal check-ins with Collins and Parker, the medical assistant cohort met monthly as a group throughout the fellowship. In these sessions, they heard from inspiring guest speakers, reviewed clinical skills, learned about practical matters like employee benefits and simply shared experiences from their work.

“To see their growth from day one to the six-month milestone was really rewarding,” says Collins.

Success in the real world

The students were placed in five locations across the CHOP Care Network, where staff welcomed them “with arms wide open,” says Collins. Supervisors and colleagues helped ensure the new team members were grounded in every aspect of their jobs.

Coyomatzi accepted a position in the Allergy Clinic at the Buerger Center for Advanced Pediatric Care on CHOP’s Philadelphia Campus. Her typical workday begins at 7 a.m., as she prepares the clinic’s exam rooms and reviews the patient schedule. As patients arrive, she greets families, escorts them to their assigned rooms, checks the children’s height and weight, and records other vitals. The clinic may see up to 70 patients in a day.

“I love what I do and the interactions with the patients,” Coyomatzi says. She also appreciates CHOP’s commitment to training: “Parents are trusting that we know what we’re doing — and we do.”

For Espinal, who was born in the Dominican Republic, there is an added layer of meaning. “I grew up in a place where children’s healthcare was not a priority,” she says. “I have always wanted to help children.”

In the primary care practice at the Nicholas and Athena Karabots Pediatric Care Center, located in West Philadelphia, Espinal enjoys the variety of patients and takes a particular interest in children with special needs. “I love going to work,” she says. “I feel like Karabots is my home.”

What’s next

Dream Job Espinal and Coyomatzi tend to CHOP patient Karter. The formal fellowship ended in January 2024, but the medical assistants are just getting started. Coyomatzi, Espinal and all nine other students who entered the program are continuing to work at CHOP. Coyomatzi is also taking college nursing courses, while Espinal hopes to explore different clinical areas, including specialty and inpatient care.

“I want them to understand that this is just the beginning,” says Collins. “There’s so much opportunity at CHOP.”

For Collins, Parker and other leaders, conversations are already underway about what future programs could look like. Beyond CHOP’s walls, Parker believes that initiatives like the medical assistant fellowship demonstrate something much larger: a commitment to the communities the hospital serves.

“This one program has been a catalyst to open doors — it shows that CHOP is not just an institution, it’s a part of the community,” Parker says.

He also cites the mutually beneficial nature of the program, at a time when healthcare is facing a shortage of qualified medical assistants. “Not only are we empowering young professionals for the future, we’re also hiring key roles for CHOP. It works both ways.”

Feeling sure of herself

On a recent sunny Friday morning at the Karabots Center, Cristal Espinal — now six months on the job — arrived for work dressed in crisp maroon scrubs. She was looking forward to the children and families she would meet and, above all, feeling confident in her skills — even giving shots. “In this job,” she says, “I found my dream.”