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Students immerse in pre-health education

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Author Chris Casey | Publish Date February 24, 2015

Robera Oljira Robera Oljira, a premed biology major at CU Denver, spends a lot of his time in the chemistry labs in the Science Building. Photo by Chris Casey. Photos below by Trevr Merchant.

Robera Oljira endured devastating gaps in health care as he grew up in a small town in Ethiopia. Tuberculosis took his father's life when Oljira was 4, and then his mother's four years later. Raised by his two older siblings, many days passed with little food and often no electricity.

"Ever since I was little I wanted to help people, to make sure they didn't face what I went through," he said.

Now, thanks to his strong academic history and the Green Card lottery, Oljira has an immigrant visa and is majoring in premed biology at the University of Colorado Denver. Through five semesters Oljira carries a 4.0 grade point average, he won a Dean's List Scholarship and is a CU Denver Academic Athlete.

Like many CU Denver students aspiring to health careers, Oljira has discovered a campus teeming with opportunity, academic rigor and support. When not in class in downtown Denver, Oljira is usually at CU Anschutz in Aurora. He spends 20 hours a week as a research assistant in endocrinology and metabolism in the CU School of Medicine and another four hours a week volunteering in the University of Colorado Hospital Emergency Room.

"It’s very cool – I'm getting experience, I'm getting paid as a research assistant and then I’m doing my own research project," he said. He plans to apply for several top-rated medical schools, including the School of Medicine at the Anschutz Medical Campus.

Partnerships foster opportunity

Just as Oljira is an elite student, pre-health is a standout field of study at CU Denver. Entering the sprawling health care field—which spans everything from medicine and nursing to pharmacy and physical therapy to dentistry and optometry—is easily one of the most popular pursuits of undergraduates on campus. An estimated 1,270 CU Denver students are currently hoping to become physicians while another 800 aspire to become nurses.

And, thanks to the symbiotic connections between CU Denver and CU Anschutz, students don't just check off academic boxes in the many scientific programs. They immerse in their subject matter, getting, like Oljira, ample opportunities for real-world experience to enhance classroom lessons.


Charles Ferguson, PhD, director of the Health Professions Programs in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and associate professor of Integrative Biology, said physicians remain in high demand, but so are physician assistants, nurse practitioners, pharmacists, public health specialists, medical scientists and just about every other health care professional. For students interested in these fields, the university offers many scholarship programs, including the Health Professions Scholarship.


Ferguson led a team that launched the BA/BS-MD program that targets high school students who qualify for college, but might not attend for various reasons. The program, which partners CU Denver students with learning and volunteer opportunities at CU Anschutz, saw its first seven graduates earn their undergraduate diplomas last spring. Four years from now, the students hope to graduate from the CU School of Medicine.

"The opportunities students will have in the future for health professions is going to be fabulous," Ferguson said. "And this partnership between the two campuses is going to give health-career development a lot of support."

'In the same community'

CU Denver's location in the heart of the city makes real-world engagement an essential part of the pre-health curriculum. From pitching in at neighborhood clinics to volunteering at local hospitals to helping community nonprofits, students enjoy wide exposure to the multidisciplinary nature of health care. At Campus Village Apartments about 25 freshmen are in the Pre-Health Living Learning Community (LLC), which integrates what students learn in class with community outreach. Learning Communities also foster support and camaraderie.

"The students are required to do community work," Ferguson  said. "Our partnerships with a lot of community organizations really facilitates our ability to do a lot of good stuff. We're in the same community as a lot of these community health organizations and clinics."

Freshmen in the Pre-Health LLC at Campus Village. Freshmen in the Pre-Health LLC at Campus Village.

For example, students in this year's Pre-Health LLC are reading "An Emperor of All Maladies," a biography of cancer, and discussing its relevance to today's approaches to cancer care. They also work on local events, such as the Gift of Life and Breath 5K Run/Walk at CU Anschutz in May, and volunteer at nonprofits like Brent's Place, which provides a home-away-from home for families of children being treated for cancer.

Six freshmen in the Pre-Health LLC met on a recent evening in a fourth-floor study room at Campus Village. They aspire to health care careers (three are in the BA/BS-MD program), and most are contemplating medical school with an eye toward the Anschutz Medical Campus. Dessa Clemenson, a biology major and member of the University Honors and Leadership program, said a key advantage of CU Denver are "the opportunities for getting connected to the medical campus."

Reilly Quist, a BA/BS-MD student, was home-schooled growing up in the Western Slope town of Delta. "The thought of going to a really big university kind of scared me. I like it here—the class sizes are smaller," she said. "And the faculty are amazing—they're really engaged in all that we do."

'Someone will be there'

Mattie Kerns, also a biology major and BA/BS-MD student, enjoys the support system of the LLC. "It's nice when you can walk down the hall and ask about a chem question at 10 at night, and someone will be there to help you out. That's really unique, I think."

Meanwhile, she enjoys top-notch advising in the Office of Health Careers. The office provides academic advising and extra-curricular activities along with mentoring, support and seminars to help pre-health students get accepted to medical school. Likewise, the CU Denver Experiential Learning Center helps link students to clinical and hospital experiences.

"They give you all the tools you need to succeed, their doors are always open, and they're great mentors," Kerns said of Health Careers advisors. "They help you make a four-year plan and help you get a research project over the summer. They also get us involved over on the Anschutz campus, which is really nice."

LLC member Seth Thomas said the LLC's guest speakers are another way to enhance professional networks. Thomas volunteers at Denver Health, where he says, "I'm beginning to get a good feel for what goes into urban medicine." He hopes to also volunteer at University of Colorado Hospital.

His interest in health care grew out of an interest in science and the human body. "I realized that (medicine) was something I definitely could spend the rest of my life trying to know more about and really exploring," Thomas said. Being a physician, he said, "is a job that I could enjoy doing every day."

The same goes for Oljira, whose enjoyment in the science is accompanied by a focused humanitarian purpose. He would like to help close a health-care gap back home of Ethiopia. He envisions opening a clinic that could be staffed by local physicians.

"Tuberculosis is the No. 1 killer in Ethiopia, and a lot of people can't afford the drugs for it," he said. "It's a huge problem, so I definitely want to do something about it."

At CU Denver, Oljira is getting the academic training, the mentorship and camaraderie—"In every class I meet three or four people that I study for exams with," he says—as well as the invaluable experience of working in teams with post-doc fellows, research staff and other students. It made traveling some 8,000 miles to attend college in a new country a life-changing experience.

"I’m very pleased with my decision to come here," Oljira said. "So far, everything is working out very well."