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Answering the Call of the Community

Sharon Shapiro gave up a journalism career to pursue her dream of becoming a physician.

Within months of earning her bachelor’s in creative writing from UC San Diego in 2002, Sharon Shapiro had a job in journalism, an apartment with friends and a small, albeit growing, 401(k).

Then, two years ago, she traded it all in 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 (PPP) at USC College, Shapiro 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 to medical or other professional schools and has a first-time applicant acceptance rate of about 80 percent.

“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 helps 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. One student earned a doctorate in German literature and lectured at a university before joining the USC program.

After earning a B.A. and a M.A. in English from UC Riverside, Brian Alessi ended up at USC University Hospital, where he underwent emergency open-heart surgery. Recovering from the operation, Alessi received a visit from a medical student.

“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 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 sodas and cookies, about 40 students and 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 suggested taking practice tests from the official review book, but only to 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 LAC+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 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 through a very challenging two-year program with 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 advanced-placement science courses just the year before.”

In addition to their courses, most PPP students are also building their clinical experiences. 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 tries to do is 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 [prerequisite] classes anywhere, but the community here is special. I’ve made good friends, probably lifelong friends. We are all going through this process together.”

“Dr. Singer has made this program into what it is,” Alessi said. “He genuinely cares about each and every one of the students � not only how they’re doing academically, but also how they are doing in life.”

Answering the Call of the Community

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