St. Olaf News


Study-abroad programs prepare students for medical school


Tou Sue Thao ’14 gives a lesson on dental health during a St. Olaf study-abroad program in Peru. The Association of American Medical Colleges is placing increased emphasis on cross-cultural studies.

While taking part in a St. Olaf College study-abroad program in Peru, Emily Olson ’14 and her classmates worked alongside medical and dental professionals throughout the country.

Under the supervision of physicians and dentists, the students assessed patients, recorded vitals, and provided assistance with medical records.

“Having the opportunity to compare local health care and health on a global scale allowed me to redefine health and medicine,” says Olson, who was traveling as part of the Peruvian Medical Experience study-abroad course. “Despite budgets, language barriers, and cultural beliefs that restrict work, I realized healthcare — both in Peru and in the U.S. — empowers the patient.”

This type of global perspective is exactly what administrators at the Association of American Medical Colleges are looking for in prospective medical school students.


“Having the opportunity to compare local health care and health on a global scale allowed me to redefine health and medicine,” says Emily Olson ’14, who participated in a St. Olaf study-abroad program in Peru.

The 2015 version of the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), which has not been changed since 1991, features a new ‘critical analysis and reasoning’ section that will require students to evaluate and apply information from texts from a wider range of disciplines, including cross-cultural studies and ethics.

An additional section, focusing on psychological, social, and biological foundations of behavior, will test students’ understanding of the behavioral, cultural, and socioeconomic determinants of health.

“These changes reflect a wealth of new research that indicates that the health and well-being of patients can benefit from better educating medical students in these areas,” says St. Olaf Associate Professor of Biology and Chair of the Health Professions Committee Kevin Crisp.

A tradition of global engagement
St. Olaf’s long-standing commitment to study-abroad programs and global engagement makes it an ideal baccalaureate college for students planning to pursue a career in medicine. For nearly half a century, St. Olaf has been a leader in sending students overseas to study. Today, more than two-thirds of St. Olaf students study abroad in one or more countries before they graduate.

The college currently offers study-abroad programs in 54 countries, including nearly 80 semester or year-long programs and nearly 30 off-campus courses during Interim.


Elena Miller ’14 examines a young patient’s teeth during the Peruvian Medical Experience study-abroad program.

“A St. Olaf education emphasizes the development of cross-cultural understanding, but our extensive international studies programming offers a particularly unique and powerful opportunity for student development,” Crisp says.

St. Olaf consistently prepares its students for a successful application process to medical school. In the past five application cycles, 68 percent of St. Olaf juniors and seniors who applied to medical school gained admission, compared to the national rate of 46 percent of all applicants who are admitted.

“I see immense improvement and growth in my pre-med students who return from study abroad,” Crisp adds. “These experiences are transformative. They change you, challenge you, and compel you to learn and grow more.”

Hands-on learning
Petra Hahn ’14, who participated in St. Olaf’s Term in Asia study-abroad program, which travels to China, Thailand, and Vietnam, agreed that the experience expanded her own understanding of health.

“I learned firsthand about the countless factors that affect a person’s health, especially in a developing country,” she says. “Among them socioeconomic status, living situation, and discrimination based on race, gender, or sexual orientation.”


St. Olaf Professor of Biology Ted Johnson (center of back row) and a group of students tour a biotechnology facility in Hong Kong during a St. Olaf study-abroad program.

Pre-med students often find that study-abroad programs not centered on medicine can influence their perception of global health care. Matt Seitzer ’15 traveled to Paris to study French and took the opportunity to draw comparisons between health care at home and abroad.

“This experience spoke to me and my aspirations of becoming a physician because it showed me the importance of relating to and understanding cultures other than my own, especially in today’s time when different cultures are interacting ever more frequently,” he says.

Cory Baughman ’14 says the lessons he learned in Peru could not have been taught in a classroom.

“My biggest takeaway, in terms of my being pre-med, is that being a physician has much less to do with medicine than I previously thought and has much more to do with interacting with, and learning from, people than I could have ever hoped,” he says. “I cannot claim to understand what any one person has been through, but through my study-abroad experiences, I gained the awareness and tact to interact with people who differ from me.”