Powerful Resource: Students Benefit from USD's Pre-Health Advising Program

The day each college student dreams of — graduation — finally arrived for Shane Davis, Melissa Tran and many others in the University of San Diego Class of 2019. Their names were called to cheers and they walked across the Jenny Craig Pavilion stage, shook USD President James T. Harris' hand and, officially, it was real.

Davis and Tran are now USD undergraduate alumni. It’s a big, significant step forward. But they both also know that they are just getting started with those steps when your goal is to attend medical school and eventually work in the field. But Davis, Tran and hundreds of other students who major in subjects at USD conducive to medical careers know that the foundational path has been paved by utilizing the valuable resource that is USD's Pre-Health Advising Program.

Directed the last six years by Cassandra Gomez, MPH, many Toreros have benefitted from all that she and USD can offer.

There are first-year orientation events in the fall and spring to ensure students want to press forward with a health career. Students attend meetings, workshops, events, get academic and health career advice, access a peer-mentor program, and opportunities such as the Scripps Mercy Trauma Surgery internship and the Health Equities Fellows program. There's quality assistance with medical school applications, pre-health student organizations and student international experiences such as Medical Brigades, or a Torero Trek or other networking opportunities through the Career Development Center. There’s even a committee for writing faculty letters of recommendation and Gomez has helped launch a Biomedical Ethics minor.

"I love my job," Gomez says. "I say I have the best job on campus because I get to work with some of the greatest students. They are very compassionate, love to serve, are eager to learn what they need to do to be on this (pre-health) path. It's very rewarding to see where they go once they leave USD and see the great things they do."

It’s not just physicians, either. Gomez organizes panels with alumni and other local professionals to expand students’ awareness of multiple healthcare career options, even the chance to stay at USD and do the Master’s Entry Program in Nursing (MEPN) at the Hahn School of Nursing and Health Science.

“I began my USD studies focused on a completely different field than where I am now,” says Michelle Lewis, who received her undergraduate behavioral neuroscience BA in 2018. She is now in the MEPN program and pursuing her master’s as a Clinical Nurse Leader. “It wasn't until I received a volunteer opportunity with UCSD through the pre-health program that I decided to switch my focus to nursing. I attended a special USD undergraduate-only roundtable discussion at the Hahn School of Nursing, and I was so impressed that I knew I wanted to continue my education at USD. I won a raffle prize for an exclusive networking opportunity with a USD alum and I chose Kathy Marsh, who was the MEPN director. After meeting with her, I knew the MEPN program was for me."

Pre-Health Grad Ceremony 2019

Faculty Connection is Key

Gomez does plenty, but she also has the support of the USD faculty. If her job is one of the best on campus, then faculty who wholeheartedly support all pre-health students — from lab research experiences to being a life coach of sorts — agree with Gomez. It’s evident when one of the best USD recognition ceremonies for graduates takes place as the Pre-Health ceremony happens in the Degheri Alumni Center courtyard each May.

"One of the greatest things about being a USD pre-health student is that because classes are small, you can really build relationships with faculty," Gomez said. "At our graduation ceremony, you see that every one of our students identifies a faculty mentor, someone who has really been an important part of their pre-health path."

Joe Provost, PhD, chair and professor for USD's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, enjoys the day because he takes his role very seriously. He is on a letters of recommendation committee and relishes the chance to work with students in his lab and provide a superior level of support — even tough love — to his pre-health students.

"Cassandra has one role of working with the students, developing who they are, why they want to do this and get them ready to apply. But it's our job to interview the students and write their letter of recommendation, which is critical," Provost says. "I often use this opportunity to give students a practice interview. We want them to really think about their answers. If they're really not prepared or too nervous, I'll stop them, send them away and tell them to think about things that can help us write a very good letter. Part of it is to get them to develop their elevator speech and to sell themselves."

It has worked well. Provost and Gomez earlier this year visited the Mayo Clinic in Arizona for its white coat ceremony with USD alumni among the first-year medical students honored.

"Cassandra and I went there and we took the time to meet with their administrators and deans. They said our letters were very meaningful, it gave them a lot of insight and they better understood who our people were,” he said.

Another key attribute is the liberal arts education, one that the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Noelle Norton, PhD, believes gives all pre-health students the fundamentals to succeed.

“Medicine is a blend of arts and sciences, requiring skills and knowledge from a wide array of disciplines,” Norton said at this year's graduation recognition ceremony. “The most successful practitioners combine elements of the humanities and sciences throughout their career. I believe, as Pre-Health Toreros with a balanced liberal arts education and coupled with a solid grounding in the sciences, that you will all be highly competent, ethical, holistic and sensitive health professionals.”

Students Feel Supported

Davis and Tran have thrived at USD, both through their own merit and because of the support that was present throughout their college days.

Davis, a native of Philadelphia, has worked with Dr. Provost since a Pre-Undergraduate Research Experience (PURE) the summer just before his freshman year. He presented research at conferences locally and, most recently, in Orlando, Fla., regarding the Provost lab's work on lung cancer research. A member of the Black Student Union, Alcalá Club and a Resident Assistant (RA), Davis did the Scripps Mercy Trauma program, received an Atlantis Fellowship enabling him to study abroad in Portugal, shadowing physicians, teaching English and helping with community service projects.

He credits Provost for his mentorship and honesty when it was needed most. "He's given so much of his time and energy, day in, day out,” Davis said. “Even when he's frustrated with me, he tells me I can improve on something and I take it as an opportunity for growth."

Davis thanks Gomez for steering him toward clinical experiences and her advising, most notably during a hectic junior year. She helped him decide "whether something was worth it or not because time is very precious when you have so many things going on." He also thanked a cross-section of Torero faculty members for their contributions.

"I'm very grateful for my tribe," said Davis, who recently announced he’ll attend Rutgers University’s Robert Wood Johnson medical school this fall.

Tran, meanwhile, worked in the lab of Chemistry Professor Peter Iovine, PhD, and her USD experience with pre-health advising, until this year, was mainly a routine check-in with Gomez to be sure she was on track course-wise. Still, Tran has benefitted from the program through her participation in the Health Equities Fellowship, as a member of the Phi Delta Epsilon student medical fraternity, Scripps Mercy Trauma Surgery internship and a recurring volunteer opportunity with the Palomar Pathmaker program. She's also a pre-health peer mentor, an Organic Chemistry lab teaching assistant and a chemistry and biochemistry tutor.

She's been busy and this year, the chemistry major with minors in biology and theology and religious studies worked very close with Gomez.

"She's super receptive to help students," Tran said. "I've been meeting with her weekly to go over medical applications, my personal statement and all of the other writing that goes with it."

She also appreciated a weekly Pre-Health email sent out to keep her aware of important information and upcoming events. Tran has applied to medical school and will serve as a medical scribe this summer. She plans to work at a ski resort this winter while she decides on where she’ll attend medical school.

Both Davis and Tran advise prospective students interested in medical school and medical careers should definitely speak with Gomez, with pre-health peer mentors and faculty.

"Use your resources," Davis says, "They're here. You just have to be the one to reach out."

— Ryan T. Blystone

The photo slideshow is from the May 24 USD Pre-Health Graduates Recognition Ceremony in the Degheri Alumni Center.

Michelle Lewis, front right, a USD undergrad alumna and current MEPN student with USD's Hahn School of Nursing and Health Science, appreciates USD's Pre-Health Advising Program resources.Michelle Lewis, front right, a USD undergrad alumna and current MEPN student with USD's Hahn School of Nursing and Health Science, appreciates USD's Pre-Health Advising Program resources.

Contact Information