Winter 2019
A roadmap for success

synapse: University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine

Trio Program Students in classroom

Top: Premed TRiO students and UNR Med post-bac students come together every Friday to prepare for the MCAT Exam. Middle: Brittney Espinoza '12 (business) and Sylvia Asare '18 (biology) attend an MCAT Exam study session at the Pennington Student Achievement Center. Photos: Brin Reynolds

Post-bac and TRiO premed programs provide direction to first generation and low income students

By Christy Jerz

While the road to medical school is never easy, the path can be particularly rocky for first generation and low income students. Their personal stories are comprised of challenges, hardships, emotions - life experiences that may be unimaginable to many of their fellow undergraduates.

One student experienced severe health challenges, while another immigrated from a war-torn country and had to learn English. There are students who spent formative years in homeless shelters, students who worked full-time to support their family and students who found time to study while raising siblings' children.

At the University of Nevada, Reno, 40 percent of undergraduate students are first generation students, meaning neither of their parents earned a four-year college degree. In partnership with the University, UNR Med has begun providing first generation and income qualified students with roadmaps to medical school in the form of the post-baccalaureate program and the TRiO premed program.

The post-bac, a structured, yearlong certificate program, launched in 2012. Megan Almansoori, UNR Med director of educational outreach and pipeline programs, describes it as a program designed for students with 2.8 to 3.4 undergraduate GPAs, who need to add to their MCAT preparation and upper division science courses in order to be competitive for medical school admissions.

UNR Med keeps a close watch over the small group of students, requiring each participant to complete progress reports through regular meetings with their professors. For many post-bac students, having a conversation with a professor may be a new concept, one they didn't practice as undergraduates.

"They may have never identified themselves with their faculty," said Almansoori. "We make sure they know their professors, and their professors know them."

Kevin Facemyer, Ph.D., UNR Med research assistant professor, is one such instructor. "I truly value the contributions of our post-bac students. They often bring broader experiences to the conversation, and that additional perspective makes my classroom better," said Facemyer.

Over the course of two semesters, post-bac students demonstrate their true academic potential and ability to handle the future rigors of medical school with a heavy course load and intense MCAT preparation. Fully immersed in 32 credits of upper-division, hard sciences, "they come in and absolutely rock it," according to Zac Walker, UNR Med learning specialist.

"These are two of the most difficult semesters you can imagine. A traditional undergraduate schedule would spread these out over multiple years," said Walker. "The majority of our post-bac students finish the program with a 3.8 GPA or above."

The post-bac program has resulted in a steady uptick in student success, with 68 to 70 percent of students matriculating into a health professionals program, including a 58 percent acceptance rate into UNR Med. And once in medical school, their record of "rocking it" really shows.

Trio Students in class

"Following acceptance to medical school, our post-bac alumni are embracing every opportunity," said Almansoori. "At UNR Med, they become our class officers, and serve in the Student Outreach Clinic and on the admissions committee. They're putting the life skills they've developed along the way to use as leaders and mentors."

It is because of the success of post-bac alumni that the School of Medicine admissions team started to wonder if they could further increase low income and first generation student success by providing assistance earlier in the pipeline, maybe even reducing the need for a post-bac program. They found the ideal partner just across campus.

In the Pennington Student Achievement Center, the TRiO Scholars Program's mission is to assist income qualified, first generation undergraduate students to overcome cultural, academic, class and social barriers to achieve success in higher education. The two organizations saw the partnership as a natural complement, and a formal agreement was put into place.

"University life is something TRiO students haven't been exposed to," said Daniel Valle, Ph.D., associate director of the University's TRiO Scholars Program. "Our students mean it when they say ‘I want to be a doctor,' but they have no idea what the dream actually takes - how to navigate the right classes, study for the MCAT or find shadowing opportunities."

"TRiO was already serving the same students we were later trying to help into medical school," said Walker.

Added Almansoori, "It was a perfect partnership, because main campus already had many of the building blocks in place. We saw the opportunity to create a mutually beneficial program."

Launched as a pilot program in 2018, six premed TRiO students - four juniors and two seniors - are currently learning about the characteristics of successful medical school applicants, how to navigate the application process and how to write a personal statement. Twice a semester, they meet one-on-one with a first- or second-year med student, often graduates of the TRiO or post-bac program.

"Our students appreciate the opportunity to be included in the pilot program - especially taking part in the MCAT prep program as undergraduates - and the feedback is already very positive," said Valle.

"It's definitely challenging, but a program like this puts them on a path. It opens their eyes to the work required to achieve their goals, and they're stepping up to the challenge."

Once it's fully up and running, the main campus TRiO program will work to identify students as freshmen, determining who might be a match based on their interests and grades. As sophomores, interested students will apply to the TRiO premed program and begin advising and workshops. Juniors will complete MCAT preparation, take the MCAT and develop and submit their applications. As seniors, the cohort will begin the transition to medical school, including interviewing for the right fit.

When it is all said and done, the UNR Med admissions team hopes the road leads back to UNR Med.

"The vast majority of our students are interested in primary care," said Almansoori. "They have a strong connection to their communities. A lot of them are going to want to stay close to home, and we'd love to see that happen."