Pre-health advising transforms to better meet student needs


student practices intubation on a medical manikin

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At a time when the essential nature of health care professionals is overwhelmingly apparent, Arizona State University's pre-health advising offices are well-suited to prepare students to meet the need to grow their ranks.

Over the past five years, pre-health advising has completely reimagined itself, increasing and improving its offerings for pre-health students, most notably by consolidating a host of disparate resources into one, comprehensive website where they are more easily accessed and shared. The move proved fortuitous when the coronavirus pandemic took hold this spring, as students were still able to have their professional school applications reviewed, participate in mock interviews and meet with advisers — all virtually, of course.

“The bottom line is that we want to make sure we’re doing good for our students and ensure we’re giving them all the resources and opportunities they need for success, and we’re going to continue to do that,” said Nate Wade, senior director of strategic initiatives at the College of Health Solutions who has been advising STEM and pre-health students for over 15 years.

The offices serve more than just pre-med students — they welcome those with interests in everything from dentistry to veterinary medicine. At the Tempe campus, pre-health advising is housed in The College of Liberal Arts and Science’s Futures Center as part of a partnership with the Office of Career and Professional Development Services, but it is available on every campus, housed in different colleges and is built to help prepare students for life after graduation, regardless of their major.

In 2019, ASU had 988 students apply to health professional schools, including medical (for which 656 students matriculated over the past five years), dental, physician assistant, naturopathic, occupational therapy, optometry, physical therapy, pharmacy and veterinary medicine.

“Students don’t always believe it, but when professional schools weigh all of the factors to admit a student — the student’s major is at the bottom of the list,” Wade said. “It’s more about doing well in the pre-reqs that the professional schools require. And some are moving away from pre-reqs altogether. When advising about academic competencies, we emphasize maintaining a strong overall and science GPA along with preparing for and doing well on standardized admissions tests like the MCAT.”

Pre-health advising has always offered guidance on that process, but more recently has risen to the challenge of helping students navigate a swath of testing reschedulings due to COVID-19, even dedicating an entire tab on their website to such resources.

Another of its offerings that has moved online is the Summer Health Institute, a pipeline program for high school students that introduces them to health career options. The institute has been running for six years now, averaging around 24-48 students per cohort and 200 applicants per cycle.

Biochemistry and global health undergraduate Julia Jackman participated in the institute the summer before her senior year of high school.

“It was here that I solidified my general career aspirations, met a cohort of students like me and found an incredible mentor to help me through the process being a pre-med student at ASU,” she said.

students gather around a medical manikin at ASU Summer Health Institute

Students feel the pulse of a medical manikin in the simulation lab at the College of Health Solutions Summer Health Institute in 2015. The weeklong residential program immerses students in hands-on learning from professional health care providers including physicians, dental hygienists, physical therapists, physician assistants, occupational therapists and nurses. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now  

During her time as a pre-health student, Jackman also took advantage of the Pre-Health Internship Program, spending over 100 hours shadowing a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Phoenix Children's Hospital, and the Pre-Health Mentoring Program, which paired her with a Creighton medical student who was able to give her advice on medical school applications, pre-requisite courses and MCAT studying resources.

“Before coming to ASU, I was a little concerned that they didn't have a medical school, but I now realize that ASU's partnerships with Mayo Clinic (College of Medicine and Science), Creighton and the University of Arizona College of Medicine — Phoenix have provided me with even more opportunities than if ASU just had its own medical school,” Jackman said. “The partnerships have given me multiple perspectives and showed me the different types of medical education available.”

Alan Rawls, executive director of clinical partnerships for the Office of University Provost, said pre-health advising guarantees the quality of its partners.

“We know when we put students there for an internship or for mentoring, they’re going to get a great experience,” he said.

In spring 2019, he and his colleague Paul LePore, associate dean for student and academic programs in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, surveyed 147 medical schools on their willingness to accept students taking online degree courses. Seventy of them responded that they would accept online students, 31% saying they would accept online students outright and 16% saying they would consider accepting online students on a case-by-case basis.

That’s valuable information that they were able to pass on to advisers, who can use it to better guide students.

“It’s critical when we start advertising to students about online degree programs like biochem,” Rawls said. “We have to be able to honestly tell the students what the expectations are for using that as a path toward some sort of health care career.”

The survey is conducted every other year, and Rawls said every year, they expect to see more schools that are willing to accept online students.

“The first time we did the survey, Creighton was a no. Then the second time, (they were a yes),” he said. “I think as schools like ASU demonstrate the quality of online instruction and open people’s eyes to the nature of online labs and what can be learned, what can be accomplished, I think we’ll see more converted to yeses.”

Whether you’re an online student or an immersion student, the resources provided by pre-health advising are invaluable. Associate Director of Pre-Professional Advising Mary Nadarski organizes workshops that cater to both types of students, including Pre-Health 101, which gives first-year students a baseline understanding of the expectations of a pre-health major, and Pre-Health 202, which introduces students to research opportunities, internships and more.

“We really just want to help students navigate that process, because it can be confusing,” she said.

Information about all of the resources provided by pre-health advising — and sometimes the resources themselves, in the form of the aforementioned workshops, career pathway maps, virtual advising appointments and more — is now available in one convenient place online. And the success of the new website is measurable: Wade said that in one year alone, the office has doubled its page views and increased its user rate by four times.

“We’ve made a lot of progress over the past five years,” he said. “We wanted to give students a centralized place to go, and we have done that.”

To learn more about pre-health services, events and items of interest, Tempe and Downtown Phoenix campus students can sign up for campus-specific newsletters.

Top photo: Tecory Robinson practices tracheal intubation on a simulation manikin at the College of Health Solutions Summer Health Institute in 2015. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

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