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Focus on Rural Health

Leaders Today and Tomorrow

By Stacy Kusler on

Health career graduate programs – like medicine, physical therapy, and occupational therapy – all have inclusive, well-rounded curricula to prepare students for their future careers. Involvement in student interest organizations can enhance learning experiences by connecting classroom work with hands-on experiences or interactions with practicing professionals. While involvement in a student organization is a perk in itself, taking on a leadership role within organizations provides lifelong skills above and beyond the profession, paving the way for future leaders in healthcare.

Beyond the Book

Emma Weisner is a second-year medical student working towards a future career focused on rural and women's health – areas that encouraged her application to the University of North Dakota (UND) School of Medicine & Health Sciences (SMHS) in the first place. Knowing her career path will likely lead her to one or both of these areas, she immersed herself in SMHS interest groups that would deliver information and experiences beyond the classroom. Not only is Weisner a participant, but she is currently a student leader for three interest groups: the Rural Health Interest Group, American Medical Women's Association, and Physicians for Human Rights.

As a leader of these groups, Weisner gets to be a part of bringing content "beyond the book" to her classmates. Events like hosting panels to hear from female physicians in practice or co-hosting skills clinics where students can learn about women's health in a simulated, hands-on environment help her to connect what she's learning in the classroom to what real-life practice could look like.

It makes me feel excited about being in medical school and enables me look forward to the future.

"Interest groups allow me to feel more engaged outside of the classroom," Weisner said. "It makes me feel excited about being in medical school and enables me look forward to the future."

Natalie Zinn is also a second-year medical student. Like Weisner, Zinn is leading multiple student organizations while studying for her classes. Zinn is at the helm for UND's American Medical Student Association (AMSA), which is a chapter of a national organization, and Root to Rise, a mentor/mentee program aimed at helping high school students envision a career in medicine. While both organizations pique her interest, Root to Rise is what Zinn is especially excited about.

"We had a pause on progress during COVID, but we're working hard to establish Root to Rise, and set a strong foundation for those who come after me," Zinn said. Root to Rise pairs medical students (mentors) with high school students (mentees) from across the state. "So far, we have over 12 medical students who have raised their hand to be mentors. Now, we are working on communicating more with high schools to find students to pair with them."

In addition to leading two student groups, Zinn takes advantage of what other interest groups have to offer. "Different events from interest groups help make the classroom learning piece real and hands-on. It helps me understand why what we're learning matters," Zinn said.

Teamwork Within Leadership

Regan Lawrence hails from Stonewall, Manitoba. Another second-year medical student, Lawrence is fueled by her experience growing up in a rural town with only one doctor. This upbringing was a big inspiration for her to pursue medicine in the first place, and she is taking advantage of the speakers and experiences that multiple interest groups offer.

Serving as a student leader for the Rural Health Interest Group, Family Medicine Interest Group, and the Health Promotions Project, Lawrence feels that making time for learning opportunities outside of the classroom is hard, but worth it. Interest groups will often host events during lunch hours or evening hours to avoid interfering with classes. This is also the time that students will often use to study. "Like anything, you have to make time for it," Lawrence said. "With the volume of information we are learning in the classroom, you will never run out of things to study," she said, noting that taking a break from the books to attend an interest group event is good for your mental health. "Events like this remind you why you're working so hard in medical school."

Being a student leader for the Family Medicine Interest Group also gave Lawrence the opportunity to travel to the American Academy of Family Physicians conference in July with some of her classmates. Similar to interest group sessions, it's hard to take time away from studying to attend a conference, but well worth the time and energy. "I feel so refreshed and energized [after the conference], I could talk all day about it," Lawrence said.

Emilee Ohman is a student leader for the Geriatrics Interest Group, the Health Promotions Project, AMSA, and her class Social Committee. As she enters her second year of medical school, Ohman knows that time-management will be important. "It's a challenge to make sure each group is getting the appropriate amount of time and energy," Ohman said. Specifically, working on the Health Promotions Project, a student-led community outreach effort, has been a heavy lift over the summer. The project, which plans to be up and running within the next year, aims to coordinate UND students from multiple health professions in serving community members by connecting individuals to needed health resources. Luckily, she has help and has learned how to use it.

Leadership is important to the job I eventually want, and I think that a big component of leadership is teamwork. I learn more about teamwork than leading, actually, and one doesn't exist without the other.

"I have learned a ton about sharing workloads and delegating tasks," she said. The fact that Ohman has four organizations under her guidance is certainly notable. "I am sort of shy by nature, but these groups are a good way to push me out of my comfort zone," she said. "Leadership is important to the job I eventually want, and I think that a big component of leadership is teamwork. I learn more about teamwork than leading, actually, and one doesn't exist without the other," Ohman said.

Broadening Their Horizons

Mandy Williamson and Karlie Wardner are both second-year physical therapy students, and co-leaders of Physical Therapy Club (PT Club), a student organization aimed at connecting current and future PT program students. PT Club is open to students ranging from undergrads (typically in the pre-PT program track) to upper-level students in the PT program.

For undergrad students, the club provides mentorship and program application preparation by offering mock interviews. For students already in the PT program, the club offers networking and mentorship between new and veteran students, and access to guest speakers and community volunteer events. For Williamson and Wardner specifically, PT club offers a chance to sharpen their leadership skills through managing the group's members, planning and scheduling events, and keeping track of the club's finances.

Their hard work comes with rewards.

You really develop a sense of community through PT Club. It helps to connect students from all graduating classes so we can learn from each other.

"You really develop a sense of community through PT Club," Wardner said. "It helps to connect students from all graduating classes so we can learn from each other."

Williamson added that PT club is "a great way to de-stress from class. Taking it outside of the classroom to hear from guest speakers helps us to see forward into our professional careers."

Morgan Halliday is an occupational therapy (OT) student leading the Coalition of Occupational Therapy Advocates for Diversity (COTAD) group. UND's chapter is part of the larger national organization, which aims to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion within the OT profession. Halliday says that, through COTAD, she has learned to be more aware of cultural biases, and how such biases could alter future patient interaction.

"COTAD is a great opportunity to learn about the lives of people from all different cultures and backgrounds, and to be more aware and sensitive to what I might encounter in the future," Halliday said.

Classroom learning and experiential learning through interest group activities complement each other well. Through involvement as a leader or member, students can expand their knowledge, broaden their perspectives, and develop the skills necessary for success in their future careers.

Stacy Kusler Stacy Kusler is the connection between rural healthcare facilities in North Dakota and qualified health professional job seekers. As the workforce specialist, she assists rural facilities to attract medical providers and other health professionals to their communities by sharing job opportunities. Through her position, Stacy is working to reduce the healthcare workforce shortages throughout the state.