By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – There’s an easy way to measure the quality of the University of Nebraska at Kearney’s health science programs.
Just look at the acceptance rates.
Over the last three years, 87% of UNK students who applied for admission to a clinical program or professional school were successful. This includes acceptance rates of 100% for pharmacy, optometry and chiropractic programs, 99% for nursing, 86% for radiologic technology, 73% for physical therapy and 64% for medicine – all well above the national averages.
Nearly 350 of the 399 students who completed their initial education at UNK advanced to a professional program in their chosen health care field, with most of them continuing their training at the world-renowned University of Nebraska Medical Center in either Omaha or Kearney.
Charlie Bicak, senior vice chancellor for academic and student affairs at UNK, called these figures “remarkably high.”
“We’re looked on favorably in terms of the quality of our undergraduate learning experience,” he said.
When it comes to preparing future health care workers, UNK utilizes a “full-service” approach. The roughly 800 students currently enrolled in health science programs have the opportunity to learn from expert faculty members on campus while gaining real-world experience in the community.
“Students who come to UNK are not only getting the academic background and preparation they need to be successful, but they’re also developing personally and professionally,” said Peggy Abels, director of UNK Health Sciences.
Because of its size, UNK can provide one-on-one mentoring and advising and, at the same time, expose students to cutting-edge technology and research.
“I think UNK fits a unique niche between the large universities and the smaller colleges, because we have highly trained science faculty with the knowledge and expertise to get grants, involve undergraduate students in research and provide them with those extra educational experiences you can’t get at all the small institutions,” Abels said. “And, at a lot of the larger institutions, those things are reserved for graduate students.
“Our faculty came to a university this size because they want to engage with undergrads and they want to personally know them, have them involved in their research and get them involved in the classroom. We’re that nice mid-level size that provides more experiences and opportunities for students, but the faculty still are focused on teaching undergrads.”
This hands-on learning is “very valuable,” according to Nicole Kent, who graduated from UNK in May 2020.
“Being able to sit down with professors one on one and discuss topics that were difficult was one of the best things for me,” Kent said. “I remember sitting down with my immunology professor, Dr. Joe Dolence, for hours just talking about how the immune system works. He welcomed that and he loved that.
“The same could be said for a lot of my professors at UNK. Having that one-on-one attention and professors who are truly invested in your education really helped prepare me for professional school.”
The Benkelman native conducted genetics research with biology professor Kim Carlson, studied health care policy with political science professor Peter Longo and participated in lab activities at the Health Science Education Complex on campus, putting her a step ahead of students from other schools.
“One of the most beneficial things I was able to do at UNK was take a gross anatomy class where we did our own dissection,” she said. “Almost none of my classmates at UNMC had that experience, but that’s something we do all the time during Phase 1 of our medical education here.”
A second-year medical student at UNMC in Omaha, where she’s also a student senator and class curriculum chair, Kent wants to practice family medicine in rural Nebraska.
“The different experiences I’ve had made me appreciate rural doctors, family medicine doctors and everything they do to provide such a wide variety of care,” she said. “I think having a consistent, community-minded doctor can make a real impact in a community. I hope that I can be that doctor for a community someday and be part of the solution to the problems facing rural health care.”
Kent learned a lot about this career through the Kearney Health Opportunities Program (KHOP).
A partnership between UNK and UNMC, the program grows the state’s health care workforce by recruiting and training students from rural Nebraska who are committed to practicing in these areas. Participants are awarded full-tuition scholarships to attend UNK and guaranteed admission to UNMC if all requirements are met.
They receive additional assistance, along with a $2,000 room waiver, through the KHOP Learning Community. A requirement for freshmen, the one-year residential learning community gives members a chance to look at various health care professions while receiving support and guidance as they transition to college.
There are courses the students take together, providing a shared academic component, and they participate in weekly mentoring groups with upperclassmen, covering topics such as study skills, professional development and campus resources. KHOP members also meet with health care providers and tour medical facilities, allowing them to see different career paths and create professional networks.
A similar program, the Health Science Explorers Learning Community, is offered to any freshman or transfer student interested in health care.
“These learning communities do a great job of setting students up for academic success,” Abels said.
UNK Health Sciences serves students in other ways, too. They can join the Health Science Club or Alpha Epsilon Delta health preprofessional honor society, listen to guest speakers and attend meetings, workshops and other events.
Staff also provide academic and career advising and connect students with health care-related job shadowing, internship and employment opportunities in the Kearney area.
“That’s what we mean by full service,” Abels said. “We really work with students on an individualized, personal level.”
By helping students choose a path that best fits their interests and abilities, “you ultimately end up with better acceptance rates,” Abels added.
And those numbers speak volumes at UNK.