Newman provides path for future physicians

02/28/2013 2:12 PM

02/28/2013 2:12 PM

Newman University, the small college in west Wichita perhaps most commonly associated with its religious traditions, has a little secret: Its graduates enjoy a high rate of acceptance into medical school.

Nine 2012 graduates were accepted, a record for Newman. That’s out of about 1,400 undergraduate students at Newman.

Seven of the nine enrolled at the University of Kansas School of Medicine, the only medical school in Kansas. The other two chose out-of-state schools.

In comparison, six Wichita State University graduates are in the first-year class at KU’s medical school. That’s out of about 12,200 undergraduate students at WSU.

Newman is “just getting a real reputation for pre-med," said J.V. Johnston, who has two sons on their way to becoming physicians after earning undergraduate degrees from Newman. One is a surgical resident; one is a third-year student.

Newman says that over the past decade, 96 percent of the students in the pre-med program who were recommended by Newman’s pre-med committee have been accepted into medical school.

Newman students, parents and faculty attribute the success to a combination of factors, including small classes, intensive coaching, cooperative efforts and rigorous requirements.

David Shubert, professor of chemistry and dean of undergraduate studies at Newman, attributes that figure to a synergy among the science department faculty members and between faculty and students.

“We’re not going to be successful if our students are not successful as well,” he said.

Growing interest

Newman doesn’t offer a pre-med degree. Neither do other universities.

Medical school admission doesn’t require an undergraduate degree in science, though it’s fair to say the majority of medical school students get their undergrad degrees in a science, often biology or chemistry.

Jacob and Nicole Baalman checked out other universities before enrolling at Newman, said their father, Kent. Jacob is a fourth-year student at KU medical school; Nicole has graduated from medical school and is in a residency in Akron, Ohio.

Kent Baalman said they chose Newman because "they liked the smaller class size, really knowing the instructors. ... I have great admiration for that school."

Johnston, a former board member at Newman, said faculty members go so far as to identify students in other majors who would make good medical school candidates and encourage them to pursue the field.

The word about Newman appears to be getting out.

The biology program has doubled in size in the past five years, Shubert said. The university’s science building is full and replacing it is the top priority in Newman’s master plan.

Newman juniors Spencer Shellhammer and Emily Chastain say the prerequisite classes they shared with about 50 other students as freshmen now draw about 100. Some classes are being split into additional sessions as class size grows, Shubert said.

Guidance, teamwork

But reputation is only part of the equation for success. Newman grads go on to a number of professional health-care programs – Chastain already has been accepted to dental school – and students and faculty say guidance is part of what makes Newman work.

When Shellhammer and Stacey Kraus, a second-year medical school student, started college, they were sure they wanted to be pharmacists. Both switched to medicine because of talks they had with Newman faculty members, who helped them identify their strengths and focus their career interests.

“I can’t say I really chose it for their medical school track record,” Kraus said. But “being there helped me decide what I wanted to do.”

From the first day, Shubert said, faculty members help students understand what will be required of them to compete for admission to professional health-care programs.

Pre-med students learn that grades alone won’t do it. Admissions officers also look for volunteerism away from campus and participation in student life, and students at Newman are strongly encouraged to do both.

Medical school candidates must prepare a personal statement and undergo interviews, and they must score well on the Medical College Admissions Test, or MCAT. Practice interviews and tests help Newman students prepare. Speakers from KU’s medical school visit regularly. Students help each other in study groups as well.

“We all have a similar goal,” Shellhammer said.

WSU’s approach

WSU takes a similar approach to helping students, said Joan Snodgrass, one of four pre-med advisers in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“We try to let them know what they’re going to have to do to get into medical school,” Snodgrass said.

That includes a class in which freshmen spend 16 weeks listening to speakers talk about what they need to be prepared and competitive. Advisers evaluate students’ personal statements, in which they write about why they want to be a physician, and conduct mock interviews as part of the preparation.

WSU doesn’t track the number of students who declare themselves to be pre-med and go on to be accepted at medical school, Snodgrass said. In part, that’s because medical students can come from different backgrounds.

“I’ve had a ceramics major, a music major – I mean, they’re all over this campus,” Snodgrass said.

The talk

Shubert said Newman has a pre-med advisory committee that helps students get ready to apply for medical school. Sometimes, that includes being blunt.

“I can’t think of anything crueler or more unethical” than to let a student get to his senior year thinking that he has what it takes, Shubert said.

“Sometimes we have that talk … ‘This isn’t for you.’ ”

But usually, he said, the student comes to that realization on his own.

Usually it happens by the end of freshman year, Chastain said. “And then there’s organic chemistry” – the make-it-or-break-it class that Chastain and Shellhammer can laugh about … now.

“As juniors, we know that it’s not going to be easy,” she said. “And Newman does a really good job of making sure you do know” that.

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