On the Right Track
Perspectives On Line: The Magazine of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

NC State University

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On the N.C. State brickyard, Roberts, Horton and Armstrong stop to talk with freshman Stephanie Chestnutt, before she heads to her Biology 105 class. (Photo by Becky Kirkland)














































































On the Right Track: The College's Emeritus Advisers Program is just what the (aspiring) doctor ordered. --- By Terri Leith
Dr. Frank Armstrong (front), Dr. Bob Horton (left) and Dr. John Roberts conduct the preprofessional advising program. (Photo by Becky Kirkland)

ornate letter Here’s a statistic to consider: Out of the 132 students from N.C. State applying in 2002 for admission to medical schools, 56, or 42.4 percent, were accepted. That’s a number that jibes quite well with the national acceptance rate and one that is particularly gratifying for Dr. Frank Armstrong, Dr. Bob Horton and Dr. John Roberts. The three retired N.C. State faculty members are the team conducting the Emeritus Advisers Program in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Housed in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Department of Zoology, the Emeritus Advisers Program was created in 1995 to help with the growing number of students seeking advice from the preprofessional advising program in that department’s undergraduate office.

“The Zoology undergraduate office’s preprofessional program was started in the 1970s by Dr. Reinard Harkema, professor of zoology, and has built an excellent reputation,” says Armstrong, University Professor of Biochemistry Emeritus. “Throughout the years, the preprofessional office has earned the respect of the professional schools, such as medical, dental, and optometry schools, because it gives students such good advice and steers them to appropriate courses.”

By the mid-1990s, increasing numbers of N.C. State undergraduates were seeking advice on preprofessional curricula aimed toward medical and allied health careers, and numerous post-baccalaureate students and career changers began returning to pursue medical or other health-related careers. Those numbers indicated that more advising help was needed. But the solution needed to take into account two things — lean budgets and the fact that not just anybody could fill the bill of dedicated adviser who is savvy about both the university’s curricular landscape and what is most attractive to the professional schools.

Enter Horton, Armstrong and, later, Roberts.

“Actually, the idea came from Dean Jim Oblinger, when he was director of academic programs,” says Armstrong. “He had read an article that said universities should take advantage of their retired professors. Dr. Horton and I had advised for decades, and we have so much knowledge about the campus. So it was a natural job for us.”

Armstrong had retired in 1990, and Horton, William Neal Reynolds Professor Emeritus of Biochemistry, in 1995. Both had served as coordinators of the undergraduate program in biochemistry, essentially setting up one of the earliest — and now, one of the largest — biochemistry undergraduate programs nationally. In that capacity they had sent many students to the preprofessional office for help. Furthermore, both had been honored by the College with Outstanding Faculty Advising awards.

Not just any retired faculty member would necessarily qualify, Horton says. “It takes knowledge and sensitivity, a mixture of compassion and sternness.”

Horton himself brings to the program “a wealth of more than 30 years of advising students and caring about them as persons, not just as students,” he says, adding that “it is important for advisers to become sufficiently knowledgeable to provide broad advice.”

Joining them on the team is Roberts, professor emeritus of zoology, who retired in 1998 after 33 years at N.C. State. Along with those years of experience, Roberts also brings his expertise as chairman of the NCSU Preprofessional Health Sciences Review Committee — the group that reviews each student’s professional school application package.

Roberts’ presence is timely, as the emeritus professors’ duties have been expanded to include advising biological sciences undergraduates and CALS undesignated freshmen (those who have not decided on their major fields). In the 2001-2002 academic year, the program advised more than 400 individuals. By spring of this year, Horton and Armstrong each had 75 assigned students to advise in addition to 86 preprofessional advisees. Those numbers promise to grow for a program that serves students across departments and colleges, and even across the community, including meetings with high school students and their parents and presentations to university orientation groups.

The magnitude and breadth of the program are reflected in the specific demands for its services. Among the groups seeking advice are the preprofessionals (students matriculating toward medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine, pharmacy and allied health services), biological sciences majors, undecided freshmen, undergraduates wanting to change majors, post-baccalaureates seeking career change and prospective students and parents. The 48 programs sending student advice-seekers not only include Agriculture and Life Sciences curricula such as animal science, biochemistry, food science and zoology, but also cover a diverse range including accounting, business management, chemical engineering, graphic design, mathematics, mechanical engineering, meteorology, philosophy and Spanish. Students from 10 of the university’s colleges and schools were advised in 2001-2002.

These groups sought help toward pursuing 26 fields of interest, such as biomedical engineering, public health administration, occupational therapy, nursing, pharmacology and podiatry and fields of medicine such as gastroenterology, neuromedicine and pediatrics.

“The medical schools like to see applicants who have broader interests beyond science,” Armstrong says. “To go to medical school, you can be in any major. For example, we advise people from engineering, textiles, horticulture, psychology and communications. An adviser can work with them to fit in all the necessary courses. It’s exceedingly interesting that having a minor in Spanish is a plus for acceptance today.”

Another new development, he adds, is that the medical schools “now see people in their 30s, 40s and older coming back to school as valuable candidates because of their life experiences and maturity.”

Some examples of the occupations of career-changers who have sought the professors’ advice about returning to school to pursue medically related fields are banker, baseball player, dental hygienist, geologist, lawyer, paramedic, prison employee and truck driver.

The professors have a bottom-line agenda for all of their advisees: “We tell them exactly what it’s going to be like and try to get them mentally prepared,” Armstrong says.

“In a number of cases with undesignated students, it helps them find a sense of direction, a sense of how things fit together,” says Horton. “It helps them to begin thinking about majors.”

In addition to medical/health care oriented fields, this past year undecided students explored with the advisers ways to enter majors toward degrees in accounting, criminology, microbiology, technology education and computer engineering.

As for the preprofessional students whose majors are in place, the program fills in the gaps of other academic advisers’ information. “One of the things that happens is that many advisers know how to advise within the limits of their fields, but don’t know how many things are required for the medical field,” Horton explains. “One thing we can provide is a perspective of the order of courses and when students need to take them.”

First and foremost, students are given “A Strategy for Success as Premedical Students,” a five-step plan of action that includes what they need to do and know in advance regarding their academic record; scores on medical, optometric or dental admissions tests, such as the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT); exposure to health care environment and research (volunteering); participation in campus and community activities; and letters of recommendation.

“For volunteering, we give them lists of hospitals and other facilities to direct them,” says Armstrong. “We tell them what courses they need to take to be accepted at medical schools. We advise them to join the premed/predent club, to go to hear guest speakers, to work in medical and community efforts. And we give them a Web site to look up.”

That site — www.cals.ncsu.edu/booklet — is the “Guide for North Carolina State University Students Applying to Medical, Dental and Optometry Schools,” a manual prepared by Nancy Cochran, student services manager for the Department of Zoology, who works with the review committee. Cochran, the program associate and managing director of the Zoology preprofessional program since the 1970s, is described by Armstrong as “the glue that holds it all together.” He emphasizes that the Emeritus program owes much of its success to the knowledge and assistance of the well-established preprofessional program in the Zoology undergraduate office.

The on-line booklet takes students from the first steps — “You really should begin preparing for professional school as a freshman”— to numbers of specific course hours needed, to the lowdown on the preprofessional tests, to just what the schools are looking for.

ornate letter Simply put, says Roberts, the Emeritus Advisers Program delivers.

“This program makes it easier for students to apply to medical schools,” he says. “We help them with letters of reference and help them get their paperwork together. We keep them advised of deadlines they need to pay attention to and continually emphasize factors other than grades and performance on preprofessional tests.”

Those “factors” include experience in the health professions.

“Health professions want people who are interested in serving the community,” Roberts says, “so volunteerism is something students should take part in. These are things that add to students’ applications and enhance their chances to get in. The more times students hear about those things from Ms. Cochran, their advisers and us, the better we can emphasize what they need.”

But one key factor that is needed, he adds, is something the student must bring: “Students must be well-motivated to succeed.”

A well-motivated student would also recognize the value of the information available from the Emeritus Advisers Program. “More and more students are coming in sooner,” Armstrong says. “The word has gotten out so that the academic advisers are more aware of this resource.”

He sees a measure of the program’s success in the fact that “our students are getting there [to professional schools] and doing well.” Also, he notes that both the UNC and Duke University medical schools consider the N.C. State and Davidson premedical programs as among the best.

Roberts adds that the presence of N.C. State’s committee-review process is another asset to preprofessional students. “One important point is that some of the medical schools are hesitant to accept students that haven’t been part of a review process,” he says. “We [the committee members] give a pre-review to the student’s entire package — including grades, preprofessional test scores and volunteer experience in the health professions — and we pass our evaluation on to medical schools. It’s a valuable piece of information for the medical schools.”

Roberts’ knowledge of those proceedings is in turn valuable to the advisees he serves on the Emeritus Advisers team. “As advisers, we’re interested in students getting all those categories filled in so they not only look good to a review board but to the schools they apply to,” he says. Accomplishing those goals continues to be stimulating, Armstrong says. “What makes a good adviser is really to have the best interest of the students at heart and want to help them. My role as adviser is to give information, advice and support. A good adviser is someone who enjoys relating to students. They’re all so different, and I find that fascinating.”

And the students’ success is gratifying, too, Armstrong indicates, as he cites another telling statistic: “Seventy percent of our graduates get accepted at dental schools,” he says, “because they’re well-prepared for what’s coming up.”


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