In middle school, Joana Pantoja wanted to be a lawyer. During her freshman year of high school at ASTEC Charter High School, then Health Careers Center (HCC) Teacher Brian Leaver visited her biology class to recruit for Metro Tech’s Biomedical Sciences Academy, and she changed direction. ASTEC Student Council Treasurer, member of Biology Club, and a straight A student since kindergarten, Joana loves math and science. Healthcare seemed like a good option for her, and the Biomed Program encouraged exploration of career opportunities in the medical field.
Once in the Biomed Program, she joined the CareerTech Student Organization HOSA (Future Health Professionals) which changed her for the better.
“Being active in HOSA got me comfortable speaking in front of people, and brought me out of my shell,” she explained.
All three years in Biomed, her HOSA team won first place at state competition, and placed fourth at nationals competing in parliamentary procedure. This gave Joana and her classmates the opportunity to visit Anaheim, Calif.; Orlando, Fla.; and Nashville, Tenn.; marking Joana’s first time to fly on an airplane or see the ocean. Winning was great, Joana said, but the relationships she formed with classmates were invaluable.
“Our group in Biomed was a family, no matter which school or grade level we were. Being in class with students from other high schools allowed us to discuss ideas we took back to our own schools. Most of us are still friends today,” she said.
During her junior year, Biomed Teacher Mrs. Upton gave a classroom lecture on the eyes, and Joana perked up. She expressed an interest in eyes to Mrs. Upton, who acted quickly on her student’s interest.
“She set me up as an optometrist at MetroCare Hospital Day. I administered eye exams. Before that day was over, I was looking forward to the next year. Mrs. Upton encouraged me to learn the difference between ophthalmology and optometry and research which interested me more,” Joana said.
Joana always said she would attend the University of Oklahoma (OU) after graduation, but Biomed Teacher Ms. Conlee discussed differences between big and small colleges during her senior year. A portion of classroom time with Biomed seniors is spent researching and exploring college options, scholarships and future plans.
“Ms. Conlee helped me understand that bigger isn’t always better, especially for the career field I was interested in. After discussion and research, I chose the University of Central Oklahoma. There were research opportunities, and the ability to connect more with professors,” Joana said.
It was during a summer bridge program for incoming freshman at UCO that Joana met Dr. Melville Vaughan, a cell biology professor. Impressed by Joana’s work ethic and lab knowledge, Dr. Vaughan became her mentor.
“Dr. Vaughan was surprised at my knowledge, and I owe that to the Biomed Program at Metro Tech. The rigor of the program not only prepared me for college, I came into college with more knowledge than most. Now I know why Ms. Conlee and Ms. Upton were so picky about lab reports…because they are a big deal!” Joana said.
Joana’s Biomed teachers continued to support her even after she left their program. The summer before her sophomore year of college, she applied for a BioEnergy research project at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater and was accepted – unheard of for a freshman.
“Ms. Conlee and Ms. Upton wrote recommendation letters explaining the extent of my knowledge, and I believe that is why I was one of nine students accepted from 50 applicants,” she said.
Joana spent that summer at OSU working alongside professors and visiting a BioEnergy plant in Kansas. She was paid $5,000 plus room and board for 10 weeks. In May of 2016, 21 year-old Joana will take the optometry school entrance exam and start the application process in the summer. Because she was the first winner of the James D. Branscum Scholarship, has applied for additional scholarships along the way, and qualifies for pell grants, Joana is currently student loan debt-free.
“I study 24-7. It’s really stressful and my classes are hard. But I know it’s going to pay off.”