Cherissa Chacon (left) and Helen Howard advise pre-health students on how to develop successful graduate applications.

Pre-science coordinators guide health care students

May 13, 2014 / by / 0 Comment
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By Michael Ferraresi
GCU News Bureau

Since January, Cherissa Chacon and Helen Howard have counseled more than 350 students about how to strengthen their academic portfolios for health care graduate programs. But that’s just a starting point.

The pair completed their first full semester serving as coordinators of pre-health professions for the College of Arts and Sciences. Their focus is to guide Grand Canyon University undergraduates in the college’s pre-med, pre-physical therapy, pre-pharmacy and pre-physician assistant programs through the highly competitive process of applying to graduate schools.

Cherissa Chacon (left) and Helen Howard advise pre-health students on how to develop successful graduate applications.

Cherissa Chacon (left) and Helen Howard advise pre-health students on how to develop successful grad school applications.

With more than 1,000 students in CAS pre-health programs, Chacon and Howard know they will be busy in the fall as word spreads about the resources available through their cozy office at the Tell Science building. This spring, they met with a range of students — from students who received academic early warning notifications, to others at their top of their classes who wanted to refine their approach to medical school applications.

The process of applying to medical schools and other health graduate programs often takes a year or more. Standardized exams such as the Medical College Admission Test are notoriously difficult to prepare for. Many med schools and other graduate health programs require students to interview in person, which takes heavy prep work. Every graduate program requires that students demonstrate work experience, references and academic achievements that highlight how they will serve as responsible health care professionals.

Building that portfolio at GCU is essential, and there is little time to waste. Pre-health programs require self-sacrifice and academic dedication. But Chacon and Howard said they remind students to keep focused on their dreams.

“It’s critical for them to not be so focused on their journey to graduate school that they’re not well-rounded or informed about what’s going on around them, and how they’re going to impact their health care field,” said Howard, who, as a mother of four adult children, brings a personal sense of understanding how to motivate youths to her role at CAS.

Howard, whose father was a  surgeon, said she also struggled with the decision to push toward applying for graduate school. She self-selected out of the pre-med program at Skidmore College in her youth, started a family with her husband and eventually earned a master’s degree in biology from University of New Mexico.

Similarly, Chacon started as a psychology and pre-med student at University of Arizona but elected out of the pre-med program. She struggled with the decision but shifted her focus. She later earned her M.B.A. from GCU and is currently working on a second master’s in psychology.

“We went through the process ourselves,” Howard said about preparing for graduate medical programs. “You truly do need to hit the ground running. There’s no lag time.”

Helping a range of students

Unlike larger universities’ pre-health programs, where students might struggle to schedule time with an adviser, the CAS coordinators make themselves available to everyone from unfocused freshmen to highly engaged upperclassmen.

Howard said she and Chacon balance being compassionate with the need to nudge students to keep pace with the academic rigors of their science-heavy pre-health programs.

Sometimes, that means providing them with resources or referring them to the Office of Career Services to help them understand their focus for the future. Some freshmen might have the dream of becoming a surgeon or a doctor of pharmacy, for example, but find other GCU academic programs to be a better fit.

Students who visit the pre-coordinator office are given worksheets and exercises to help them understand the best approach to graduate school.

Chacon and Howard will ask students to develop a spreadsheet with a list of more than 20 possible schools, helping them visualize the requirements for each. Their recommendation to students is to organize their GCU coursework to master that required content, not only to meet minimum requirements, but to be highly competitive.

Chacon said graduate schools, especially top graduate medical programs, have far too many applicants to consider students with suspect academic records.

“The real world and graduate schools are looking for personal reliability,” said Chacon, a Phoenix native who — like many GCU students she has met — was the first person in her family to earn a college degree.

‘We want you to be successful’

Chacon and Howard stage mock interviews to help students practice for grad school panels. They also provide packets with resources about how to strengthen applications, among other tips for success.

“We had one student that we met with four times already to go over their personal statement,” Chacon added. “We make ourselves pretty open and available, even in the summer. We want you to be successful.”

Pre-med junior Daniel Harned said the pre-health coordinators helped him earn an internship through Maricopa Integrated Health System. This summer, he and GCU pre-med student Rita Bybee will shadow doctors in various areas of the Phoenix medical center, including the burn unit and operating rooms.

That experience is invaluable and leads to professional references in many cases. Strong internship experiences set a student apart from other med school applicants.

“(Med schools) want to see that you know what it takes to be a doctor before you go into medical school,” said Harned, who would like to work on infectious diseases or genetic disorders in the future.

However, he admitted this spring that he needed a little help in refining his focus. A friend told him about the pre-health coordinator office at CAS, so he made an appointment.

“Later in the year, I felt like I needed some help figuring out what I wanted to do,” said Harned, 19. “(Chacon and Howard) have access to a lot of information and they definitely had some good advice.”

Additionally, the CAS pre-health coordinators urge students to get involved with GCU’s chapter of AzHOSA, the health care professions program that helps link students into additional resources to succeed at the graduate level.

Contact Michael Ferraresi at 602.639.7030 or michael.ferraresi@gcu.edu.


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