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As a teenager, Sonia Ponce spent most of her summers pulling weeds for $4 an hour at a tree nursery.

Ponce, the daughter of Mexican farmworkers, used the money she made visiting her parents each summer in the United States to pay for her schooling in Mexico, where she lived with relatives. After finishing school, she moved to northern Idaho with her family and later got into the University of Idaho in hopes of becoming a physician.

But, Ponce, who at the time was struggling to learn English, said several professors and advisers discouraged her from pursuing medical school, saying it might be too challenging. Maybe she should try nursing.

"People didn't take me serious," she said. "I felt like I was walking into the dark. I didn't know what I was doing."

Now, as a University of Utah medical school student, Ponce hopes she can encourage Latinos to go after their medical career dreams and educate them about how to get there.

Ponce is co-organizing a free conference at the U. for college students around the state interested in studying medicine, pharmacy, nursing, and physical therapy.

The second annual event is geared toward Latinos, American Indians, Pacific Islanders, blacks and women to help increase the number of minority students in health-care professions, organizers said. Sponsored by the Latino Medical Student Association, the event will include workshops on the various health-care careers, how to get into medical school and job opportunities.

Sometimes, students don't know what questions to ask or are embarrassed to ask for help, Ponce said. The conference will provide an opportunity for minority students to talk about medical school with students who look like them, have the same cultural background and might share the same accent, she said.

"We're trying to show them a little bit of light in the right direction," said Ponce, who is 26 and in her third year of medical school.

At the University of Utah School of Medicine - the state's only medical school - there is only one American Indian student. That's down from nine American Indian students in 1997, according to U. records. There are currently only three Pacific Islander students.

The number of Latinos has stayed fairly steady with 16 students for the past decade.

In Utah, Latinos make up about 11 percent of the state's population; they more than doubled in the 1990s and have increased an estimated 50 percent from 2000 to 2006, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

However, Latinos make up less than 4 percent of the U.'s medical students.

Recruiting and retaining students of color is definitely a challenge for the U. as well as medical schools nationwide, said Candi Ramos, the U. medical school director of diversity and community outreach.

"I'm not too happy with the numbers. There's always a need to increase the under-represented minority populations," she said.

Asians are not included as an under-represented minority group, Ramos said. At the U. medical school, the number of Asians has almost doubled from 20 to 39 students in the past decade.

Increasing the number of minority students is a priority at the U., but it is difficult when not many of them are graduating from college and fewer are applying for graduate programs, Ramos said. In Utah, Latinos are mostly from young immigrant families and there is a struggle to get the kids to graduate from high school.

"If they're not going to college, how are they going to go to medical school?" Ramos asked.

The conference is crucial and valuable for minority college students to meet mentors, and it also is a chance for them to visit the medical school and feel welcomed, Ramos said.

"They get to identify with someone and say, 'If they can do it, I can do it,' " she said.

If you go

* What: "Navigating Through Health Care Careers," a free conference for college students statewide.

* When: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, April 5

* Where: University of Utah, Spencer F. & Cleone P. Eccles Health Sciences Education Building, 26 S. 2000 East.

* To register, go to, but it is not required.

* What to expect: The event, sponsored by the Utah Latino Medical Student Association, will include workshops on starting a career in medicine, nursing, pharmacy and physical therapy. A free lunch will be provided. Minority students and women are strongly encouraged to attend.

* For information, contact Sonia at