Robert Alexander camped out on Fourth of July weekend, but he wasn't on vacation with his family. The 26-year-old spent the holiday where he has spent most every weekend this summer — the Brody of School of Medicine. Like most medical school students, Alexander is putting in some 80-hour weeks attending lectures and labs, observing physicians and studying for the next exam. But Alexander isn't a medical student. He just really wants to be one. He is among some two dozen medical school hopefuls attending the Summer Program for Future Doctors at East Carolina University.
While a handful of students attending the eight-week program have been invited to attend Brody this fall, the vast majority have no guarantees, only the hope that a year or two from now, they will finally have a turn. For the first time in the program's more than 20-year history, three of this year's summer students actually are dental school hopefuls. "They are at various stages of getting ready for medical school," said Dr. Richard Ray, a professor of physiology at Brody and director of the summer program. "Some have never applied before; some have applied several times."
Bradley Propst of Concord, who graduated with a degree in biology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, applied to and was rejected by medical schools three times. After attending ECU's summer program in 2009, he gained admission to Brody, where he is now a second-year student and a teaching assistant in the summer program. "You need something that will draw you out of the pack," Propst said, "and grab their attention in a good way."
Jon Winter of Rocky Mount, who graduated from North Carolina State University with a degree in biology, had a similar experience. With more than 800 applicants a year vying for about 80 seats at Brody, Winter couldn't get past the interviews — until he attended the summer program.
Nearly half the students admitted to Brody last year were not first-time applicants. The average GPA was 3.6 for undergraduate students and 3.9 for graduate-degree students. The average Medical College Admission Test score was 9.9 per section (on a 1-15 scale, with an average score being 8).
Holly Dieu didn't have numbers like that. The 22-year-old Charlotte native wasn't surprised when she didn't receive any acceptance letters from medical schools this year. "I rushed my application the first time around," said Dieu, a UNC graduate who is among the first generation in her family to attend college. "I knew I was a weak applicant." But Dieu had a plan B. She got her certified nursing assistant license in April, finished college in early May and started the Summer Program for Future Doctors about a week later. Dieu moved out of her apartment in Chapel Hill and into a dorm in Greenville. She hasn't seen her family since. She missed her mom's birthday and her family vacation, instead spending more than 220 hours in the classroom learning anatomy, biochemistry, neuroscience and physiology. "It's really, really intense," Dieu said. "I've probably never worked this hard in my life. It's nothing like undergrad."
In addition to their science coursework, students spend nearly 100 hours enhancing their reading skills, preparing for the MCAT, learning about health care and observing medical procedures. "You see how hard they're working," Marsha Hall, business service coordinator at Brody, said. "They leave their families and jobs behind to come and stay in a town they don't know. That's pretty admirable." Summer program students receive grades but no course credit for their work. There is no transcript to show to a prospective medical school, but students who complete the program can walk away with positive evaluations and even letters of recommendation to enhance their applications.
There is no charge to attend the summer program. In fact, participating students receive a $2,200 stipend to help cover their housing and living expenses. Medical school faculty essentially volunteer their time to the program; they receive no additional pay for the courses they teach. Due to state budget shortfalls, the summer program, which last year did not operate for the first time since the 1980s, may have to seek grants and private donations to continue. "As one of the two state medical schools, we are facing the budgetary issues and trying to be responsible about it," Ray said. "But we're working very hard to make sure that we can keep the programs going that we view as core programs. This is one that we think is very important." One reason for that is that the summer program helps Brody recruit minority, disadvantaged and nontraditional students. Giving minority and disadvantaged students access to medical education has been part of the mission since ECU's medical school opened in 1977. "All this goes right back to our mission to try to recruit what we call nontraditional medical students," David Musick, associate dean for medical education, said. "For some of the nontraditional students, it's really one of the first chances they've ever had to demonstrate that, if they work hard at something, they can be successful."
Rocky Mount native Brittany Means has wanted to be a pediatrician since she was young enough to go to one. But after graduating with a biology and pre-med degree from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, she didn't even apply to medical school. She didn't believe she had the grades to get accepted. "I had a 3.1, which isn't competitive at all," said Means, 23, who worked her way through college. "So it kind of made me nervous when I did think about applying to medical school." When Means got accepted into the summer program, she took a leave of absence from her job as a donor and client support specialist with the American Red Cross in Charlotte and headed to Greenville for a chance to prove herself. "By the grace of God, I got in, and I've been trying my very hardest to do well," Means said. "It's been overwhelming, but I definitely think it will be worthwhile. I strongly believe that this was meant for me, so I can't give up that easily."
Robert Alexander was nearly ready to call it quits after taking the MCAT the first time. He felt so terrible about his performance that he elected to void the score. But the Salisbury native, who attended Cape Fear Community College and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, still wasn't ready to give up on medical school. He applied to Brody's summer program, moved in with his wife's aunt and uncle near Greenville and started to work.
Students with less than perfect grades and MCAT scores, Ray said, are ideal candidates for the summer program. "This gives us a chance if someone has a problem with standardized tests, if their scores aren't up to the national average," he said. "If they've got a 3.1 (GPA), they probably aren't going to get in (to medical school), so a program like this can show that they can handle the work. "If they get the foot in the door, it's their job to keep pushing it," Ray said. "But if they do, it really does help them get in."
Steven Nunns already was in the door at Brody. At 24, the UNC Wilmington graduate had a job in the physiology lab as a research technician, but he had to leave it to enter Brody's summer program. After two unsuccessful attempts to get into medical school, Nunns hopes the summer program will be the golden ticket. It has been for a large percentage of summer program participants. More than half of summer program participants eventually are admitted to Brody or to another medical school. This year, 15 of Brody's 70 medical school graduates had attended the Summer Program for Future Doctors, as have 15 to 25 percent of Brody graduates since 2007. Nunns, one of 28 students to complete the summer program this week, hopes to someday join the ranks. "This is a last-ditch effort for a lot of people," he said. "It's a ton of work; you're exhausted. But the end goal is so appealing. "This is my way into medical school," Nunns said, "so I wouldn't want to be doing anything else right now for the summer."