Program offers students second chance at medical calling
By Eva Emerson
Within months of earning her B.A. in creative writing from UC San Diego in 2002, Sharon Shapiro had a job in journalism, an apartment with friends and a small, if growing, 401(k).
Then, two years ago, she traded it all in — the apartment, the salary, the career — for a shot at what she had realized was her true calling — medicine.
She’s not alone.
In fact, as a student in the Postbaccalaureate Premedical Program at USC College, she is part of a vibrant community of students who have given up jobs, security and old goals to pursue careers as healers.
Founded in 1998 by Professor Larry Singer, the program offers students with an undergraduate degree a chance to complete math and sciences courses required by medical schools. So far, PPP has sent a total of 30 students on to medical or other professional school, and has a first-time applicant acceptance rate of about 80 percent.
Life in Transition
“While a few students come directly from undergraduate studies, many have spent a significant amount of time pursuing other goals, or even entire careers,” said Singer, a professor of chemistry who has run the program almost single-handedly for the past seven years.
To help students through the transition, Singer has created an environment of support and team learning that will help them thrive.
The program has attracted high-achieving students, including graduates of Harvard, Princeton and Columbia. Shapiro’s peers include a former electrical engineer, a musician, a film producer and a trained architect.
Brian Alessi earned a B.A. and a M.A. in English from UC Riverside. Then he ended up as a patient at USC University Hospital, where he underwent emergency open-heart surgery. While he was recovering from the operation, a medical student came to check on him. “I thought, ‘Look at all this person’s done already, and she’s probably my age or younger’,” Alessi said. Now in his last semester in PPP, Alessi, 26, spends every Tuesday shadowing a surgical oncologist and is interviewing at medical schools.
One of only a few of its kind on the West Coast, PPP has gained momentum in recent years. Program enrollment has jumped from just 15 in 2000 to more than 60 active students today. Compared to its closest peers — Mills College in Oakland and Scripps College in Claremont — the College program has built a unique identity for itself as flexible, student-centered and anchored by a close community of students.
The strength of that community was evident at a recent PPP reception, an event Singer hosts twice each semester. Over cold sodas and cookies, about 40 students and recent alumni shared their experiences preparing for the MCAT, the notoriously difficult medical school admission test. A few recommended Kaplan for its “really hard practice tests.” Another said she had simply taken practice tests from the official review book, but only suggested it for those who were very self-motivated.
Heather Rosen attended the reception to share her experiences with those who hope to follow in her footsteps. Dressed in green scrubs, Rosen had just completed an overnight shift at the hospital.
Singer considers Rosen the program’s unofficial first alumna, as well as its first success story. Rosen completed an M.D. at the Keck School of Medicine in 2004. Now in her second year of a surgical residency at L.A. County + USC Medical Center, Rosen initially graduated from USC College with a B.A. in French in 1997. Even before she graduated, Rosen realized that she wanted to be a surgeon. But she hadn’t taken any science classes. So, she returned to USC as a limited-status student.
Singer met her in his organic chemistry class. “She would sit in the front row and take copious notes,” Singer said. “She told me her story, and I realized that there were probably a number of others in the same situation.”
The idea for PPP emerged from discussions between Singer and Rosen. In creating PPP, Singer tried to respond to Rosen’s suggestions of what would have improved her time back at USC and her efforts to get into medical school.
“Heather really was the impetus,” he said. “Without her there wouldn’t be a program.”
The pooling of resources and knowledge about the intricacies of applying to medical school — or simply being back in college after many years — are at the heart of what Singer means by “community.”
Students help each other navigate what can be a very challenging two-year program. The PPP students form study groups. This year, they created a password-protected, Internet-based message center, where students can network, commiserate or ask advice on anything from chemistry homework to volunteering at a particular clinic.
“Academically, it’s very competitive,” Singer said. “They’re taking classes alongside 17- and 18-year-olds who may have had AP science courses just the year before.”
In addition to their courses, most PPP students are also building up their clinical experiences while in the program. Some, like Shapiro, volunteer as many as 20 hours a week.
Interviewing applicants for the program, Singer doesn’t try to whitewash the challenges students will face. What he does do is try to select those sincerely committed to medicine, or in a few cases, veterinary or dentistry careers.
“I tell prospective students, ‘You can never ask yourself enough times, Am I making the right decision?’ “ Singer said. “Postbacs are at a point in their lives when they can’t afford to experiment, to come here to find out if this is what they really want to do. There are real financial stakes.”
“I just feel so lucky to be here,” said Shapiro, 25. “When you feel like you are on the right path, you don’t mind [all of the challenges].”
Alessi agreed. “It’s a lot of fun and a lot of hard work. You can take these [pre-requisite] classes anywhere, but the community here is special. I’ve made good friends, probably life-long friends. We are all going through this process together.”
“Dr. Singer has made this program into what it is,” said Alessi. “He genuinely cares about each and every one of the postbacs — not only how they’re doing academically, but also how they are doing in life.”
Even with the intense time demands that come with running PPP, Singer said he has enjoyed the experience. “It’s very satisfying to follow these students’ paths.”
Alessi said that a testament of students’ gratitude to Singer is how many alumni make themselves available to help current students.
Rosen is glad to help. Even lacking sleep, her message for the assembled PPP students was positive: “Keep going for it. You will get through it, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”