Joreena Harris never considered a career in health care.
"I had no interest at all. I was afraid of bodily fluids," she said.
But last year, she had a life-changing moment. Harris was working at a car dealership when a little boy started to choke on a piece of candy. As luck would have it, Harris just learned CPR from a family member in law enforcement. She was able to dislodge the candy, and the boy began breathing again.
"That's when my whole world changed," Harris said. "I said, 'I want to do that. I want to save people's lives. I want to work on the ambulance.' But I didn't know what it consisted of."
Monday, Harris will be among 20 graduates in the fifth class of St. Paul's Emergency Medical Services Academy. Most are students of color. The city program was created to diversify the pipeline of emergency medical technicians in Minnesota, where the field remains largely the province of white men.
Minnesota In Photos: St. Paul's EMS training
Harris, who began her training through St. Paul's three-year-old academy, represents the kind of student the program recruits. At 23, she is a mother of two, and probably couldn't afford to complete the coursework on her own.
Not only is the St. Paul academy free, it pays the students $7.50 an hour to attend class. The money comes from a mix of foundation grants and city funds. After 14 intense weeks, the once-squeamish Harris now plans to continue her studies and become a paramedic.
As an African-American woman, Harris said she might be able to better relate to the patients she serves in her community.
"There's just some things you can't read in a book, and there are some cultures that trust their own people," she said. "If there's a person who doesn't speak English, you need people who speak different languages. When you see a person who has the same as yours or the same color, it's just naturally a soothing feeling you get."
Along the way, Harris and her classmates have received a lot of help. Their coaches include black St. Paul firefighters. Among the volunteers is St. Paul native Bernard Foster, who spent 10 years trying out for the firefighting job before the department hired him a few years ago.
At the department's training tower, the students recently took turns with a physical agility test required for their class. It's modeled after the same test firefighters must complete. Foster coached 22-year old Concordia University student Brong Khang as Khang dragged a dummy across the pavement.
"Now get under his armpits," Foster said. "Use your legs. Look up!"
Khang is a burly former high school football player accustomed to grueling practices. But with the 160-pound mannequin in his clutch, he panted like it was the test of his life. He finished the obstacle course winded.
Khang wants to be St. Paul's first Hmong firefighter. The city has never had a Southeast Asian firefighter, despite its large Asian population.
The department has a history of racial tension. Foster, the firefighter who helped Khang, said he still gets an unwelcoming vibe from some of the white firefighters.
"They'll have the misconception that someone I knew got me on," Foster said. "Or they complain that maybe they needed more minorities, so they just gave us jobs. But I had to work hard.
"If it was that easy," he said with a laugh, "I wouldn't be out there 10 years trying."
Discrimination isn't unique to any one agency, said one of the EMS academy's instructors, paramedic Matt Ruland.
Ruland is white and has become a big-brother figure to some of the students who have struggled with homelessness and financial problems. Some worry about making ends meet to pay for childcare or groceries — or even a $10 haircut. Ruland said he sees an "undercurrent of racism" within the field of emergency medical-services. Anyone who can't see that, he said, is "in denial."
"Historically, it's about who you know," he said. "These guys are going up against a bureaucracy in terms of being hired. It's not fair. They've got a long battle ahead of them, and this is just the first step."
When the city created the academy in partnership with Inver Hills Community College, Fire Chief Tim Butler hoped it would become a feeder program for the fire department, where fewer than one in five firefighters is a person of color. But none of the graduates has made the cut — at least not yet.
Butler, who grew up on a 40-acre farm, said developing minority graduates from the academy won't happen overnight.
"It's not a hunting mentality where you go out and find somebody and you grab onto them and say, 'You're one.' It's a farming mentality where you plant the seed, you nurture it, and you may not get the crop for a couple of years," he said. "We're still in that process."
Seventy percent of the academy's graduates are working in health care, and earning bigger paychecks because of their career choices, said Luz Maria Frias, the city's director of human rights and equal economic opportunity. But about 40 percent of the latest class won't graduate. One student became homeless during her training and had to pull out of the academy.
At the training tower, all eyes were on 25-year-old Julian Phipps, an African-American who is built like a fire plug. He blazed through the agility test. The last obstacle required him to pound a metal beam with a sledgehammer, simulating the act of chopping through the roof of a burning building.
St. Paul firefighter Curtis Williams cheered Phipps through the home stretch with an incredulous eye on his stopwatch.
"My man! My man!" Williams shouted. "3:07! 3:07!"
Shaking his head at the stopwatch, the firefighter smiled and said, "We want him."
The city is now accepting applications for the EMS Academy's summer class.
Who is eligible: Economically disadvantaged or at-risk St. Paul residents between ages 18 and 24
When: June 18 - August 24
Wages: $7.50 an hour