Career Changer: The Post-Baccalaureate Premedical Program and its Students have Been Transforming Lives for 25 Years
June 25, 2019
by Amy Derbedrosian
Grace Han was overwhelmed.
A teacher at a Chicago charter school, she found herself unexpectedly pregnant just as her husband was leaving military service, and the only insurance plan she could afford limited her access to quality prenatal care. Once Han gave birth, the hospital discharged her just 48 hours after a cesarean section, and with no guidance about caring for her newborn daughter, Claire.
Soon after, Claire experienced a medical emergency requiring a hospital visit. But by then Han’s husband had a job with health benefits, enabling Claire to receive what Han describes as “VIP care.” Shocked by the difference from her earlier experience, Han grew determined to address healthcare inequities directly. She decided to become a doctor.
Han had changed paths before: She studied journalism at Northwestern University but, uncertain about her future in writing, joined Teach for America instead. Han taught throughout her 20s, moved into education policy, and then returned to the classroom. Entering medicine would involve a far greater transition. To prepare, Han turned to the Scripps College Post-Baccalaureate Premedical Program.
Now celebrating its 25th year, the 12-month Scripps Post-Bac program was created for career changers who, like Han, have the motivation but not the prerequisite courses to pursue medicine. Approximately 98 percent of those completing the program are admitted to medical, dental, or veterinary school. “We’re the strongest post-bac program on the West Coast. There’s no doubt about it. We were the first on the West Coast and are the most established,” says DeEttra Mulay, the program’s director for nearly a decade.
Han is among the success stories. Though she hadn’t taken a science course since her first year of college, Han left the Post-Bac program in 2018 with a full scholarship to attend the University of Michigan Medical School. She credits Mulay with helping her achieve this outcome: “DeEttra is the LeBron James of post-bac coaching. She gives terrific advice and knows how to push us to be our best in this challenging program.”
Yet David Sadava, the now-retired biology professor who launched Scripps’ Post-Bac in 1994 with his former faculty colleague Margaret Mathies, recalls his initial skepticism when two former students visited his lab during the 1992 holiday break and urged him to start a program. Sadava says, “Being practically oriented, I asked myself: Is this a useful thing? Why do we need these non-science majors? I’ve always thought about education as having social utility.” He contacted several medical school deans of admission for advice, remembering, “They all said I should do it. They had the notion of a physician as a humanist and thought these people would bring interesting backgrounds to medicine.”
As W.M. Keck Science Department faculty, Sadava and Mathies needed to approach their three sponsor colleges about supporting a post-bac program. Nancy Bekavac, president of Scripps at the time, embraced the idea. “She had come to her own career in a roundabout way and saw the potential post-bacs as interesting people. Though the program would take men, she thought a majority of the students might be women and saw an opportunity for women in leadership,” says Sadava. Professor of Biology Jennifer Armstrong, the Post-Bac program’s faculty director from 2014 to 2018 and now associate dean of faculty at Scripps, offers another reason for Bekavac’s enthusiasm: “The mission of Scripps is to encourage students to live boldly and courageously, and the post-bacs definitely live boldly and courageously.”
Conceived as faculty-driven and purposely small, the Scripps Post-Bac program seeks students with strong academic records but little or no background in science. The program enrolls just 18 students per year, selecting them from more than 250 applicants with diverse educational and professional experiences. “There is no typical class. If you can think of a background, we have it,” says Mulay, listing teachers, Julliard-trained musicians, businesspeople, a documentary filmmaker, and many psychology majors among Scripps Post-Bac students, whose average age is 26. “These are people who are bright, academically engaged, and want to give back to their communities,” she says.
Soyoung McFarland was in an early cohort, enrolling soon after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1997 with a psychology major and Spanish minor. Originally planning to pursue a PhD in psychology, McFarland came to doubt this choice. She started volunteering in a hospital emergency room and then with a public health project in Ecuador. “I fell in love with the idea of helping people and realized that with medicine, there are a lot of options, and I could use my Spanish,” explains McFarland, who at the time hadn’t taken a science class since high school. “I’m a person who always follows my heart.”
McFarland made what became a life-changing decision to complete the Scripps Post-Bac over two years. By staying longer she overlapped with a new student cohort that included Cameron McFarland, the former Peace Corps volunteer she later married. The summer course in medical sociology she took at Pitzer College led her to accompany her professor to Costa Rica, where she worked in a rural health clinic. A Fulbright fellowship followed, enabling her return to Costa Rica to study healthcare access for Nicaraguan women employed in the country as maids.
McFarland and her husband went on to the University of Pittsburgh Medical School, and she is now a hospitalist—a patient’s primary care doctor during a hospital stay—with Kaiser Permanente in San Diego. She reflects, “The program opened doors for me in ways I never thought possible. In the Post-Bac, it doesn’t matter where you came from or what you majored in. It’s how hard you’re willing to work—a matter of effort and how much you care.”
Underlying students’ success is a demanding load of biology, chemistry, and physics classes and labs taught by Keck Science faculty, whom Han deems “extraordinary.” “Students get a holistic, intense foundation in science,” says Professor Armstrong. “All of medicine is based on biology, and all of biology is based on the laws of physics and chemistry. It’s an entirely new world of knowledge, vocabulary, and way of thinking for them. We also ask students to volunteer in a healthcare setting to observe the doctors they want to become. It reminds them why they’re doing the program.”
Kristoffer Strauss reinforces Armstrong’s words as he reflects on the program he completed in 2014. He says, “Now, being on the other side of medical school, I realize the academic rigor of Scripps Post-Bac is equal to or greater than medical school because of the speed at which it moves. The greatest compliment I can give Scripps is that it put me in a position to do as well as I possibly could in medical school.” Currently a first-year resident with San Mateo County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services in Northern California, Strauss graduated from the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell in New York in 2018. He had entered the Post-Bac program with a science background consisting of a single Yale University geology course, several years’ experience as a management consultant, and a desire to better serve psychiatric patients unable to advocate effectively for themselves.
Like all Scripps Post-Bac students, Strauss shared a classroom with Keck Science undergraduates. Mixing the student populations has been a distinctive element of the program from the beginning and is intended to benefit both groups. “The post-bacs are really interested in the material and want to know how it fits into their broader understanding. I think they’re good motivators for our undergraduates, who see their focus and maturity. The undergraduates are science majors, so they can teach and advise the post-bacs,” says Marion Preest, Pritzker Family Foundation Professor of Biology and current faculty director of the Scripps Post-Bac program.
At first hesitant about learning alongside undergraduates, current post-bac student Katie Deutsch now prefers it. She explains, “It means we’re not all post-bacs in class together, which lessens the intensity and allows our collaborative spirit to continue. In the summer, the program organizes hikes and other social activities to get us together outside class and help us understand each other as people. We learn to see ourselves as assets to each other and not compare ourselves. The program institutionalizes this.”
Mulay and the faculty directors set out to create a community within the program, and they consider collaboration one of its defining features. Mulay says, “We believe medicine is a team sport. We want to build doctors who work well with the whole healthcare team and to establish teamwork and collaboration as core values.”
And this sense of community crosses cohorts. Through the Scripps Post-Bac linkage program, which eliminates the typical time between the end of a post-bac program and the start of medical school, known as a glide year, Deutsch will soon join Han at the University of Michigan Medical School. When she arrived for a visit, Han was there to greet her. “She made Michigan feel like home to me. The experience of doing a post-bac at the same place creates a strong connection. Now it feels like the Scripps community is continuing,” says Deutsch, who, like Han, participated in Teach for America and once considered a different field (her Brown University undergraduate degree is in art history and urban studies).
Han was also instrumental in Deutsch’s decision to participate in the linkage program. Deutsch explains, “Grace gave a workshop over the summer about linking, and I realized it made sense. I didn’t want to waste a year; I wanted to get started. Applying in the fall and then studying for the MCAT is a lot to add on, but I’m so excited that I can’t imagine doing anything differently.” About one-third of Scripps Post-Bac students choose the linkage program, which involves five medical schools across the country. Mulay notes, “We look for a culture match between institutions—a medical school that values nontraditional students and what they bring to the experience.”
Current student Sean Faulk is among the majority who prefer a glide year. He started classes at Scripps just three weeks after he defended his dissertation to earn a PhD in geophysics and space physics from UCLA, in 2018. Faulk’s education in a science discipline differentiates him from most of his Post-Bac classmates, but he considers himself like them in many ways. Faulk explains, “I hadn’t taken biology since high school and took one semester of chemistry in college 10 years ago. I may be entering with more quantitative skills, but the labs are still difficult for me.”
Faulk was able to waive the usual physics requirements and studied psychology for the first time instead. He also works as a medical scribe at a children’s hospital to bolster his medical school application with more clinical experience. “The program is really a ‘choose your own adventure’ project,” says Mulay. “It’s a matter of knowing who you are and following your own path.”
Whatever choices they make along the way, Post-Bac students describe leaving Scripps with increased self-confidence. They attribute it to the program’s small size, collegial culture, faculty quality, and personalized advising. “I learned a lot about myself during that year. It speaks to the transformative nature of the program. It made me feel I could take a leap professionally and academically and succeed,” says Strauss. In other words, the program is accomplishing exactly what it set out to do 25 years ago.
Ensuring this requires regular monitoring and adjustments. Scripps Post-Bac undergoes an external review every seven years; the most recent, in 2014, led to articulating teamwork, diversity, and community as core values. This year, the program introduced a new biochemical physiology course and shifted preparation sessions for the MCAT exam’s critical analysis and reasoning section to better balance the student workload.
Marking the program’s 25th anniversary offers an opportunity to look to the future as well as the past. Now that there is a sizable contingent of former Post-Bac students, Mulay seeks to engage them more deeply and build an even stronger alumni community. “We’re not resting on our laurels,” adds Preest. “We have a successful program, but we’re always looking at how we can better it.”