A Milestone for Future Health Professionals

The summer of 2023 in Georgetown was sweltering, yet Professor of Biology Maria Cuevas had reason to run through the halls of Fondren–Jones Science Center, celebrating with her colleagues: 100% of the 16 seniors and alumni who had graduated within the previous three years, engaged in pre-health advising, and applied to medical or dental school for entry year 2023 had been accepted.

Cuevas, who has chaired Southwestern’s Pre-Health Advisory Committee since 2018, recalls her elation as students delivered the wonderful news. “I cried,” she recalls delightedly. “I was so happy!”

She was not, however, especially surprised: The group applying for 2023 admissions “was a really good group of students,” she says. They had earned 3.6+ GPAs, scored high on the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) or Dental Admission Test, stacked shadowing and research atop volunteer experience, and crafted stellar personal statements. “Schools are really looking holistically,” explains Cuevas, and the applications from this particular cycle “were strong. Everybody worked showing off their strengths and strengthening their areas of improvement.”

Juliet Pridgen '22 Juliet Pridgen ’22

A Lifelong Goal Achieved

For Juliet Pridgen ’22, getting into Texas A&M School of Dentistry fulfilled a childhood dream. “I went into college knowing I wanted to do dentistry,” she says. At age eight, she had asked for an electronic toothbrush for her birthday. And when she saw her pediatric dentist for regular cleanings, she and her sister competed to see who could earn the highest marks on their dental report cards. “I think that made going to the dentist fun,” Pridgen explains, “and I realized that I could see myself in a career in dentistry.”

At Southwestern, Pridgen learned from mentors such as Professor of Biology Ben Pierce, whom she describes as “really helpful” and “very encouraging.” She also participated in Student Foundation and enjoyed building relationships through Best Buddies, a program that brings adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities to Southwestern to play games and socialize with current students.

“If you can handle a significant course load while playing a collegiate sport, it shows that you can wear a lot of hats.”

But outside academics, her most substantial commitment was playing soccer six days a week. She partly attributes her acceptance to dental school to her participation in athletics. “If you can handle a significant course load while playing a collegiate sport,” she explains, “it shows that you can wear a lot of hats and can handle the course load of dental school.”

From Unexpected Turbulence to Smooth Landings

Like Pridgen, Marcelo Salazar-Barragan ’23 majored in biology at SU. His journey through various health issues prompted him to explore the pre-med pathway. The summer before his senior year in high school, for instance, he was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor that required surgical removal. “That was very scary, but the personal patient side of medicine really interested me,” he reflects.

At Southwestern, he took influential courses such as Comparative Vertebrate Morphology, Endocrinology, and Genetics. He studied antibiotic resistance with Associate Professor of Biology Martín Gonzalez, researched post-lung transplantation outcomes at Johns Hopkins, and even coauthored an article on a cystic fibrosis drug—all “great experiences” that he describes with relish.

Marcelo Salazar-Barragan '23 Marcelo Salazar-Barragan ’23

Surprisingly, even though he would graduate summa cum laude with multiple honor societies, scholarships, internships, and a publication to his credit, Salazar was waitlisted on Match Day— demonstrating the ultra-competitiveness of med school admissions. Luckily, his time on the waitlist was not long, however agonizing: Two months later, he was accepted at The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.

Salazar was relieved and excited—but also anxious about suddenly moving to an unfamiliar city. Despite the stress, he remained optimistic. “I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I knew that it was going to work out,” he says. “And I’m loving it right now, so it wasn’t the end of the world; it ended up being OK.”

The Importance of Shadowing

Cuevas, Pridgen, and Salazar can all attest that shadowing is one of the most crucial elements of successful applications.

During summer of 2020, Pridgen interned with dentist Nicholas Cox ’11. COVID curtailed patient appointments, so Pridgen spent her time talking to the physicians, patient coordinators, hygienists, and assistants. She appreciates SU’s “robust alumni network. Dr. Cox was super generous and made the experience welcoming… I was really lucky.” She also says shadowing “100%” helped her get accepted to dental school.

That same fall, Salazar rotated across multiple departments at St. David’s Georgetown Hospital, from orthopedic surgery and gastroenterology to obstetrics and gynecology. “That was pretty cool,” he reflects, “because I wasn’t sure what specialty I was interested in.”

The latter internship is the result of a dynamic partnership Southwestern has enjoyed with St. David’s since 2014. Each academic year, up to eight students spend four hours each week shadowing doctors, nurses, and technicians in 10 specialties, including a department of the student’s choosing. The experience confirms some students’ ambitions by giving them a holistic view of healthcare. It also dispels romanticized notions of healthcare careers, helping other students realize that medical school is not for them, which is equally valuable.

The program “makes Southwestern unique,” says Cuevas. Other pre-health advisors, she continues, “often mention how hard it is for their students to find shadowing opportunities. So this partnership with St. David’s is priceless.”

SU also recently partnered with Tim Boone ’77, director of education at the Houston Methodist Academic Institute and professor of urology at Weill Cornell Medical College, Stephanie Bruce ’93, Assistant Chief Quality Officer, Houston Methodist Willowbrook Hospital, Charles Millikan ’68, Vice President for Spiritual Care and Values Integration at The Methodist Hospital, Keith Barber ’85, Chief Executive Officer at Houston Methodist Willowbrook Hospital, Erin Skelley ’94, Vice President, Brand Marketing at Houston Methodist, and Mark Easterly ’92, Vice President, Legal Services at Houston Methodist to offer eight-week interdisciplinary internships and four-week observerships to current students interested in healthcare careers beginning in summer of 2024. This is in addition to the eight-week research assistant positions that Boone already provides SU students at the main Houston Methodist campus.

Selected students for internship and observership opportunities will engage in interdisciplinary, hands-on professional development as well as networking and mentorship at Houston Methodist Willowbrook Hospital through multiple rotations, from internal medicine, neurology, orthopedics and sports medicine to family practice, spiritual care, and the patient experience. Students can also observe at Houston Methodist during an experiential learning course taught by Professor of Communication Studies Bob Bednar during the summer.

Committed to Student Success

In addition to shadowing, many applicants work with Southwestern’s Pre-Health Advisory Committee, which comprises cross-disciplinary faculty and staff helping students put their best foot forward in their applications. The current members include Cuevas, Alexandra Anderson (Center for Career and Professional Development, CCPD), and professors Cody Crosby (physics), Jethro Hernández Berrones (history), and Carmen Vélez (chemistry).

The committee posts opportunities on Pirate Connect and hosts sessions where pre-health hopefuls assess their goals, strengths, and action plans. Furthermore, the committee collaborates with the CCPD to offer free MCAT practice and Q&As with alumni in relevant fields. The pre-health advisors also give detailed feedback on application materials.

Some of their most substantial work results in an evaluation packet that Cuevas assembles for each qualifying student. After students submit a lengthy form, multiple essays, and recommendations, the committee reviews each submission and tailors an institutional letter of support for each eligible student. The committee also works with students who don’t yet meet minimum requirements to determine next steps and how to improve their applications for the next cycle.

Pridgen appreciates their efforts: “It’s beneficial because you’re having multiple people chiming in on your good qualities, whereas at a bigger school, you’re kind of on your own as an applicant.”

Once students are invited to interview, the committee hosts mock interviews. Pridgen and Salazar both chuckle, thinking back to theirs. “It was anxiety-inducing,” Pridgen admits. “The interview at Southwestern was harder than the ones I had at dental school! But I was happy about that. I benefited from that.” Salazar echoes Pridgen’s take: “The Southwestern ones were scary because they’d ask very thought-provoking questions to overprepare you. The interviews I had with the med schools were honestly more informal.”

With a laugh, Cuevas responds, “Yes, I’m hard! We encourage our students, but we’re also honest with them in a kind, respectful way… It’s a rewarding experience, especially when you’re helping these young individuals reach their goals.

Health Careers, Healthy Lives

Having impressed interviewers and survived harrowing first semesters of dental and medical school, Pridgen and Salazar are now navigating their challenging programs with aplomb.

“I’m very grateful that I’m at [A&M] and have the opportunity to have this career,” Pridgen says. She enjoys practicing drilling in operative lab and waxing teeth in her anatomy course. Cadaver lab was “pretty interesting,” and she joined the Texas Association of Women Dentists. She’ll eventually decide whether to pursue oral surgery, periodontics, or another specialty after dental school. But for now, she looks forward to moving from classroom learning to clinical work in upcoming semesters.

“Cultural awareness, empathy, [and] passion for serving others are always off the chart with our students … These things are setting them apart.”

To succeed in dental school, she says, active engagement in college is important. “Sometimes I felt like I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off trying to get involved in so many things,” she remarks. But Pridgen’s dedication paid off: she was accepted to all four dental schools she applied to. “I was really proud because I worked really hard for that, and I don’t regret any of it,” she says.

SU’s rigorous curriculum similarly empowered Salazar to take on his medical studies with greater confidence. He agrees that discipline, not intelligence, is key to thriving. “The workload and the quality of work at Southwestern really prepared me for med school.”

Both alums also ascribe their achievement to their SU professors. “I really benefited from going to office hours because I got that individualized attention,” Pridgen explains. “My faculty helped me get into dental school, so I have a lot of gratitude for Southwestern.” Salazar likewise appreciates the University’s tight-knit community. “In med school, you can wait a whole hour just to ask one question!” he laughs. “At SU, the professors are so smart, and they care about you. That’s why they’re there: they want small classes… to develop relationships with students.”

Cuevas exemplifies Pridgen and Salazar’s portrait of SU’s caring faculty. She believes that students benefit not just from Southwestern’s pre-health advising, alumni network, and CCPD but also its curriculum, which addresses many pre-health competencies: “critical thinking, teamwork, ability to think outside the box, making connections.” However, she loves that SU also attracts a certain kind of person who’s well suited for health—and other—careers. “Cultural awareness, empathy, [and] passion for serving others are always off the chart with our students,” she observes. “These things are setting them apart.”

More broadly, she shares, Southwestern’s approach to liberal arts education is “not only for medical, dental, or veterinary school; it’s for life.” She often asks students preparing for interviews to reflect on their undergraduate experience: “What are you taking away that is going to help you lead a happy, successful life? What lifelong skills are you taking with you that you can apply no matter what you decide to do in the end?” SU’s pre-health graduates have certainly learned to answer such questions with 100% gratitude—and success.

How can you help pre-health applicants? Opportunities abound, and all such opportunities are much-appreciated gifts to Southwestern students:

  • Offer one summer shadowing position at your local healthcare practice.
  • Collaborate with SU to create shadowing, research, and other internship opportunities for current students at your hospital.
  • Have a Zoom call with a student who is on the fence about pursuing a health career or who wants to learn about a particular career path.
  • Help conduct mock interviews.
  • Participate in the pre-health brunch at homecoming by speaking about your career path or networking with current students.
  • Share your professional experiences through the CCPD’s Curious Conversations.