St. Olaf has a strong track record of preparing students for careers in medicine and the health sciences, most notably as physicians, nurses, and physical therapists. Students benefit from a rigorous and broad liberal arts education, one-on-one advising, faculty-student research collaborations, and internships and clinical experiences at top health care organizations like Mayo Clinic, as well as networking opportunities with engaged alumni who willingly share their knowledge and expertise.
St. Olaf’s claim as one of the best baccalaureate colleges for preparation to work in the health professions is backed up by data. From 2011 to 2016, 75 percent of St. Olaf students who applied to medical school with a cumulative grade point average of at least 3.60 were accepted, compared to the overall national average acceptance rate of 47 percent among students with comparable grade point averages during the same time period.
“Liberal-arts-trained health care workers tend to be better problem solvers,” says Kevin Crisp, biology professor and chair of St. Olaf’s Health Professions Committee. “They pay attention to the social, economic, and cultural context of patient care. Through their exposure to the humanities and social sciences and arts, they’re broadly trained in communication, cultural competencies, and intercultural awareness to be effective in their work.”
For the past two years, every senior nursing major at St. Olaf — 48 students in total — has passed the Minnesota State Board of Nursing RN licensure exam. As students of the liberal arts, these nurses-in-training have developed critical and ethical reasoning skills, applied interdisciplinary knowledge to their understanding of patient care, and become proficient collaborators and leaders. As well-rounded generalists with clinical experience in pediatrics, geriatrics, public health, and other medical specialties, St. Olaf nursing graduates are in high demand with employers.
“Our clinical partners are eager to employ our graduates,” says Susan Huehn, associate professor of practice in nursing and chair of the Department of Nursing. “This past summer, we had 11 juniors complete nursing internships, and four of them had jobs before they even started their senior year this past fall. All of the nursing graduates in the Class of 2018 had jobs before graduation.”
Students interested in the health professions earn majors across the liberal arts, including science and non-science disciplines. Those who are considering medical school can pursue pre-med (or pre-health) studies in tandem with their major.
At St. Olaf, being pre-health is an intention, not a major, and that intention guides students’ curriculum choices, as not all of them will go on to become doctors. Among those who do head to medical school, the Association of American Medical Colleges notes that, nationally, only 51 percent of medical school enrollees in 2012 majored in biological sciences. The remaining matriculants majored in the humanities, mathematics or statistics, the physical sciences, the social sciences, or specialized health sciences.
St. Olaf’s philosophy is to help students think past the title of “doctor” to examine how they can best use their skills to improve the lives of others, Crisp says.
“We want students to explore career options that suit them and that fit their specific set of skills,” he says. “We offer a rigorous science education, research opportunities, and support for students to discover all sorts of possibilities to make a difference within the health sciences. We help them put their unique talents, perspectives, and experiences to best effect and to go on to get jobs in the field of their choice, whether that’s as a physician, dentist, nurse, physical therapist, or any number of other options.”
Liberal-arts-trained health care workers tend to be better problem solvers. Through their exposure to the humanities and social sciences and arts, they’re broadly trained in communication, cultural competencies, and intercultural awareness to be effective in their work.Biology Professor Kevin Crisp
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, between 2016 and 2026, health care-related occupations are projected to add more jobs to the economy than any of the other occupational groups. Both Huehn and Crisp note in particular that the booming nursing industry (15 percent of jobs added to the health care market will be in nursing) will benefit from St. Olaf’s excellent nursing program, whose students will be well-positioned to fill many of those vacancies.
While nursing students earn a bachelor of arts degree in nursing, they also partake of St. Olaf’s liberal arts curriculum by completing the general graduation requirements, such as courses in a foreign language, oral and written communication, and abstract and quantitative reasoning.
“It’s imperative that students have the combination of a liberal arts education with professional preparation because the health care system is so complex,” Huehn says. “A broad education prepares students to become discerning practitioners.”
Admission to St. Olaf’s nursing program is competitive, with only 24 students admitted each year. The program includes clinical experiences that prepare nursing students to work in all specialty areas, including psychiatry, obstetrics, and general medical surgery, as well as in elementary, middle and high schools, among others. St. Olaf’s clinical preparation for students in public health, in particular, sets the college apart from other baccalaureate nursing programs.
“While most programs prepare generalists, most don’t offer public health certification as we do,” Huehn says. St. Olaf’s location also provides nursing students with the best clinical experiences in a combination of urban and rural, public and private settings through partnerships with a variety of clinical agencies, ranging from Rice County Public Health and Northfield Hospital to Twin Cities hospitals like Abbott Northwestern, Hennepin County Medical Center, and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
The nursing program soon will benefit from enhanced facilities as well. Having been temporarily housed in the basement of Ytterboe Residence Hall for the past three years, the department will move in February 2019 into newly renovated space in Regents Hall of Natural and Mathematical Sciences.
The new space, which includes two labs for simulation training with high-fidelity patient simulators, improves the department’s technical capacity to educate future nurses. In simulation labs, students work with educator-controlled adult and neonatal patient simulators that mimic neurological and physiological processes like respiration, blood flow, muscle activity, eye movement, and skin response. The training leads students through a variety of unfolding scenarios related to patient care, which helps them learn to tend to a patient’s emotional needs while also treating their physical needs.
“Simulations are a great way for students to practice their skills in a safe environment,” Huehn says. “Students learn to interact with other members of a health care team as well, such as a physician or a chaplain.”
The move also better supports the nursing program’s collaboration with faculty and students in other science programs, Huehn says. “Proximity to other departments, both in the natural and social sciences, will allow us to provide cross-disciplinary training. Students in other health science programs will also benefit from using the simulation labs.”
In addition to simulation work, all nursing students and most pre-health students participate in cadaver dissection as part of St. Olaf’s comprehensive anatomy and physiology program.
“Working with cadavers is another experience that can be quite impactful for our pre-health students, as it’s an experience that is rare at the undergraduate level,” Crisp says. “The cadaver dissection students conduct a memorial service of gratitude in honor and thanks to the individuals who donated themselves as cadavers to our program. This is a powerful, moving event each year, and it is an important part of our students’ anatomy education as they reflect on the dignity and selflessness of our donors.”
Beyond the classroom
While nursing students gain clinical experience beyond the Hill, pre-health students also have numerous experiential opportunities that offer firsthand exposure to health care. Administered by the St. Olaf Piper Center for Vocation and Career, cohort internship programs pair students with mentors (some of whom are alumni) who oversee the students in laboratory research and job shadowing in all areas of patient care.
These programs include the Rockswold Health Scholars Program at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis — where students are mentored by neurosurgeon and program creator Gaylan Rockswold, M.D., ’62; Sarah Rockswold, M.D., ’90; and Jon Snyder, M.D., ’94 — and Health Scholars at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, where mentors include David W. Larson, M.D., ’93; Erik K. St. Louis, M.D., ’87; Scott H. Okuno, M.D., ’85; Scott E. Kaese ’83; and Stephen Q. Sponsel ’82.
In addition, small teams of students participate in the Norway Innovation Scholars and the Mayo Innovation Scholars Programs, founded by alumnus and retired Medtronic executive John Meslow ’60, and overseen by faculty advisor Kevin Crisp. The teams of students conduct biotech research projects or evaluate potential business opportunities for discoveries and inventions created by physicians and researchers.
In keeping with the St. Olaf value of civic engagement, pre-health students are encouraged to pursue community service opportunities.
Students also have the opportunity to intern and/or conduct research at Fairview Health Services; Allina Health; TRIA Orthopedic; the Pediatric Blood & Marrow Transplantation Center at UMN under the supervision of John Wagner, Ph.D., P’11; the Center for Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation in Northfield, Minnesota; Consultative Health and Medicine in Minneapolis (an internship provided by Chris Johnson, M.D., ’76 to two students every summer); and the Children’s Mercy Center for Bioethics in Kansas City, Missouri.
These programs are intentionally developed in partnership with hospitals and clinics to offer unique experiences that are available only to Oles, says Katie Hughes, the Piper Center’s associate director for pre-health career development and coaching, who provides personalized advising while overseeing experiential pre-health programs, including structured job shadowing, for students interested in the health professions. “We work really hard to create formal opportunities for students to do more vocational discernment to make sure a career in the health professions is right for them,” Hughes says.
In keeping with the St. Olaf value of civic engagement, pre-health students are encouraged to pursue community service opportunities. For example, nursing students teach about oral hygiene at local Head Start programs and recently participated in discussions with community members to understand further how health care workers’ attitudes toward patients in poverty affect the health care those patients receive. “It’s an effort to help students become more compassionate caregivers,” says Huehn.
With careful planning, pre-health students can also study abroad — another hallmark of a St. Olaf education. Many choose St. Olaf’s service learning–focused Peruvian Medical Experience, during which students assist alumni health professionals who are serving the dental and medical needs of Andean communities in and around Cusco, Peru.
“All told, St. Olaf supports and empowers pre-health students to be autonomous decision makers with respect to their careers, guiding them along the way with everything from individualized advising and academic planning to experiential development and networking opportunities. “We want them to ask, ‘How can I use my education to be the best doctor I can be? The best nurse?'” Crisp says. “We’re here to support their development according to their potential and their desires.
The Institute for Freedom & Community Explores the Complexities of Health Care
In spring 2018, St. Olaf’s Institute for Freedom & Community offered a series of events related to health care, which remains one of our country’s most urgent, complex, and controversial public policy issues.
The diverse slate of experts included Joanne Lynn, M.D., who addressed elder care in America — an increasingly urgent social problem as the boomer generation ages — and Gilbert Meilaender, who provided guidance in thinking through the complicated ethics of palliative sedation. Two other events focused on the question of what kind of health care system the U.S. should adopt: David Craig and Joan Tronto debated the merits of incremental or radical reform while considering solutions ranging from single-payer insurance to community health centers, while Amitabh Chandra and Tyler Cowen highlighted the critical role that market incentives and innovation play in the quality and quantity of health care Americans can access.
These thought-provoking conversations are available online at http://institute.stolaf.edu/public-programs/2017-2018.