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Blugolds in med school prepare to become physicians

| Gary Johnson

Photo caption: Encouragement from her UW-Eau Claire instructors prompted Hannah Van Steenburgh to switch her major from nursing to biology. Now she’s a first-year student at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

Blugolds have taken diverse pathways to medical school but are singular in the belief that their University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire education provided the requisite preparation on their journey to becoming physicians.

Medical school was not part of Hannah Van Steenburgh's career plan when she left her hometown of Manitowoc to study nursing at UW-Eau Claire.

"Once I moved away from home and started school at UW-Eau Claire, I had a lot of new experiences that pushed me out of my comfort zone," Van Steenburgh recalls. "I connected with professors who saw my potential before I did and encouraged me to take on new and bigger challenges in my schoolwork."

That encouragement prompted Van Steenburgh to switch her major from nursing to biology, with a minor in pre-professional health, as she pivoted to a career destination of becoming a physician. Van Steenburgh, a May 2020 graduate, is in her first year at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. 

"There were so many resources and people at UW-Eau Claire who wanted to help and see me succeed, which made it easier to start considering what I knew I wanted to do deep down but had previously felt impossible," Van Steenburgh says. "I always thought doctors were cool but didn't know I had the intellectual ability or resources to become one until UW-Eau Claire really brought those qualities out in me. That's something I will be forever grateful for."

Van Steenburgh was among six former UW-Eau Claire students who started medical school this fall in Wisconsin. 

About 30-40 UW-Eau Claire graduates apply each year to medical school. The national average for acceptance into medical school is about 46%, and UW-Eau Claire's rate is consistently above the national average, with a rate as high as 82% some years, says Dr. Julie Anderson, director of the Health Careers Center at the university. Between 2014 and 2018, about 100 offers of acceptance were given to Blugolds applying to medical schools, Anderson says.

Most medical school applicants from UW-Eau Claire have bachelor's degrees in biology, biochemistry, microbiology or chemistry because of their passion for science, Anderson says. But a number of pre-med students major in psychology, kinesiology and neuroscience, and new majors in public health and biomedical engineering will provide even more interesting and exciting options for pre-med students to choose from.

“Over the years, UW-Eau Claire students majoring in economics, mathematics, German and a variety of other non-science majors have successfully gone on to medical school,” Anderson says.

Anthony Roberts took a winding road to the Wisconsin Academy of Rural Medicine in the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. Roberts grew up in St. Cloud, Minnesota, before earning a bachelor’s degree in business from UW-Madison. After a four-year stint in the U.S. Navy, he looked around in 2017 for the right university to obtain the necessary science literacy he needed to achieve a competitive score on the Medical College Admission Test or MCAT.

"I was focused on going from absolutely zero science undergrad classes completed, and no formal experience in subjects like biology, chemistry and physics since high school, to completing the MCAT and having a medical school take my application seriously," Roberts says.

Roberts found UW-Eau Claire and its faculty to be the perfect fit for his post-baccalaureate work, and a stark change from his experiences at UW-Madison.

"Opportunities seemed so much more accessible, class sizes were more manageable," Roberts says of UW-Eau Claire. "It was so much easier to speak with and form a relationship with my instructors. I knew that I wanted to go to medical school before going to UWEC, but the faculty at UWEC showed me how I was going to make that happen in the best way possible."

UW-Eau Claire's established relationships and collaborations with Mayo Clinic Health System and Marshfield Clinic Health System provide pre-med students with opportunities for involvement in research, volunteering, internships and shadowing with local health care partners.

Accessible, expert advising and mentoring through UW-Eau Claire's Health Careers Center and Advising, Retention and Career Center provide one-on-one assistance with medical school applications and preparation for interviews, says Anderson, who has advised and mentored pre-professional health students for more than 20 years. 

"UW-Eau Claire offers an incredible variety of opportunities for students — mentorship and guidance, student/faculty research, shadowing and volunteering to name a few," Anderson says. 

Van Steenburgh believes the academic rigor of UW-Eau Claire's science curriculum allowed her to hone her study- and time-management skills to better prepare for medical school.

"The science courses are challenging and detail-oriented and at times required just as much discipline as medical school has," Van Steenburgh says. "But at the same time I had so many resources and professors who were approachable and willing to help me."

UW-Eau Claire graduate Ruby Gravrok says the university made her aware of opportunities in the Wisconsin Academy of Rural Medicine program at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health.

UW-Eau Claire graduate Ruby Gravrok says the university made her aware of opportunities in the Wisconsin Academy of Rural Medicine program at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health.

Van Steenburgh, who will graduate from medical school in spring 2024, is undecided about a specialty for her residency program because "every week I have different ideas of what I find particularly exciting."

Another May 2020 UW-Eau Claire biology graduate, Eau Claire native Ruby Gravrok, didn't expect to stay in her hometown for her undergraduate education but is glad she did. Gravrok, who majored in biology with a minor in Spanish for health professions, credits the university for making her aware of the Wisconsin Academy of Rural Medicine program in the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. 

"Attending school in Eau Claire, which is surrounded by several rural communities, helped me to realize how much I love rural Wisconsin and its communities," Gravrok says. "It has been, by far, one of the things I have been most happy about here at SMPH. The other WARM students are wonderful and I am very excited to be doing my rotations in a more rural setting."

Like other Blugolds in medical school, Gravrok praised the preparation UW-Eau Claire provided to prepare her for the MCAT and in obtaining professional experience in the community, including the many opportunities to work and volunteer in Chippewa Valley health care facilities.

Gravrok plans to graduate from medical school in 2024 and would like to work in Wisconsin as a physician; she still is open to many different specialty options.

Roberts also will graduate from medical school in 2024, when he plans to permanently settle in western Wisconsin.

Roberts recommends pre-med students seriously consider UW-Eau Claire.

"I think UW-Eau Claire might get overlooked because high school seniors often think bigger is better," Roberts says. "I know I used to think that. But Eau Claire will take an undergrad anywhere they want to go. The school revolves around its undergrads, and that is not always the case at the bigger schools."