When the father of a potential pre-med student inquired about St. Cloud State’s admission rates to medical school, Dr. Marina Cetkovic-Cvrlje, chair of the St. Cloud State University Pre-med Advisory Committee, provided the data, then added: “Honestly, as a parent, I would be more interested in what a school can offer to my child to support his or her desire to enroll in medical school.”
That’s not to say that Cetkovic-Cvrlje isn’t proud of those acceptance rates for St. Cloud State pre-med graduates. They are high: 75 percent for the years 2007-2018. “In those 11 years 80 of our pre-med SCSU students have been accepted at either allopathic or osteopathic med schools; in the same period (2007-2018) — 107 applied to med schools.”
But what St. Cloud State offers that gives pre-med students their advantage is considerably more personal, targeted attention than at larger universities that traditionally attract greater numbers of pre-med majors, said Cetkovic-Cvrlje, known by students and colleagues as “Dr. C.” That and the roadmap professors in the pre-med program use to guide students to success can make all the difference in this especially challenging educational journey.
“As a university, St. Cloud State has put new focus on creating individualized support for students in specialized fields like medicine that give them a clear pathway to a successful career,” said President Robbyn Wacker. “Through our It’s Time framework we have put particular emphasis on building on excellence in academic areas of holistic health and wellness, applied science and engineering, education and leadership. The pre-med program is a successful example of how our students thrive in this supportive environment.”
Achieving their goals
For more than a decade Cetkovic-Cvrlje, professor of immunology, has successfully shepherded students through the prerequisite academics and activities medical schools are looking for in applicants, taking a personal interest in helping them achieve their goals.
“Here we take the time,” she said of the faculty involved in the pre-med program. “We’re really good at supporting students. It’s a huge advantage for them.”
“From the beginning pre-med students at SCSU are given everything they need to be in training for medical school,” Cetkovic-Cvrlje said. The program includes a specific package of required academics with several professors who get to know the students well and advisers who offer personal support through the Pre-med Advisory Committee.
Pre-med graduate Sruthi Shankar ’18, who is now a fourth-year student at the University of Minnesota Medical School, is among the many students who have flourished under the carefully structured pre-med academic program and the ample opportunities for research and other experiences that enhance students’ preparation for a medical career. “St. Cloud State University contains a hidden treasure trove of professors and opportunities,” she said.
Born in India and reared in Singapore, Shankar immigrated to St. Cloud in 2008 and attended local schools, then chose St. Cloud State because of the range of learning opportunities it offered and her ability to live at home and help her family while pursuing majors in both Biomedical Science and Biochemistry.
Shankar found her place at the university with the guidance of her professors and helping other students navigate their way through the transition to college life, sharing her unique experiences as an example of how students can achieve success in life by remaining open-minded even when thrown into unusual life circumstances.
“It was really sort of a journey, but through this hard journey — especially with the help of many amazing professors who know my story and know where I come from — I’ve gained my footing.”
For Shankar opportunities to grow included the chance to get involved in student organizations like the Pre-med Club and Medical Professions Association, of which she served as treasurer – to be surrounded by other pre-med students who offer a sense of belonging and feeling that they are part of something, Cetkovic-Cvrlje said.
There’s also the option of taking advantage of the international study experience at the University of Croatia, where Cetkovic-Cvrlje earned her M.D. Approximately 80 percent of St. Cloud State pre-med students include this study-abroad opportunity in their undergraduate education. A month of studying abroad alongside Croatian students is a favorite memory Shankar has of her time at St. Cloud State.
As a student Shankar worked as a tutor in St. Cloud State’s Chemistry Tutoring Center and as a peer mentor for the University Honors Program, in addition to being a leader in co-curricular activities and connecting with her ethnic and cultural heritage through the India Heritage Club.
Cetkovic-Cvrlje also cites the extracurricular opportunities that St. Cloud Hospital offers, with “complete infrastructure and support.”
While at St. Cloud State Shankar presented with fellow student researchers at the National Council of Undergraduate Research, earning a student research grant and second place at the St. Cloud State Student Research Colloquium.
On campus, taking advantage of undergraduate research projects is essential for pre-med students, said Cetkovic-Cvrlje. “The Integrated Science and Engineering Laboratory Facility (ISELF) building is very alive with research opportunities.”
“The work that I’ve done at St. Cloud State has really helped me realize how medicine has to be intimately connected with research, and I think that the future of medicine is really dependent on the physician being able to translate their clinical experience into the laboratory and vice versa,” Shankar said.
“My professors and mentors stayed with me through thick and thin, and they were definitely my guiding light,” Shankar said of her St. Cloud State experience. With continued inspiration to thrive and serve others with her education, she has continued to excel in medical school. In 2020, she co-founded MN COVID Sitters, a timely effort for University of Minnesota Medical School students to support medical providers and their families in the event of a COVID-19 surge.
While there are other pre-professional programs at St. Cloud State, pre-med is the most structured, for good reason, Cetkovic-Cvrlje said. “Very few students can muddle through the pre-med program. It’s the most complicated. Here you have several professors who get to know the students inside and out.”
A number of students do come to St. Cloud State each year to pursue an education that will lead to graduate school for a variety of other professions. In recent years, 15 percent of St. Cloud State graduates have gone on to post-baccalaureate programs at 135 institutions.
A variety of disciplines
St. Cloud State offers a number of programs which prepare students for post-graduate work in professional areas for which a higher degree is required. Undergraduate preparation and advising is available for professional careers in Chiropractic, Dentistry, Law, Medicine, Mortuary Science, Occupational Therapy, Optometry, Pharmacy, Physical Therapy, Physician Assistant and Veterinary Medicine.
Pre-law is a good example of a field that offers students in a variety of majors a guided path to a profession.
“Pre-law is not as specific as pre-med,” said St. Cloud State’s pre-law adviser John Baker. “But advising is available to students if they’re interested in law school and want to have that path,” he said. “For law school the most critical thing is the timeline: when to take the LSAT test, what classes to take.”
Baker’s unique background makes him an effective adviser to St. Cloud State’s students, who represent a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. He came to St. Cloud State after a career in the military, majored in political science, went to law school and became an attorney exclusively representing veterans.
Now he is in his third career, teaching law enforcement in St. Cloud State’s Criminal Justice program – part of the School of Public Affairs – and advising students interested in law. “My joy now is with students,” he said.
Baker has a list of classes he tells students interested in law school they ought to take, such as philosophy, critical thinking, finance, communication and mechanics of public speaking.
“There’s also a prep course for LSAT through the Center for Continuing Studies. And St. Cloud State has a relationship with Mitchell Hamline’s law school that’s a 3+3 program.”
Through that program, admitted students do their first three years of undergraduate course work then their last year of undergrad is also their first year of law school, Baker said. “They still have to have the pre-requisites to get into law school but they can get through in six years instead of seven. Several students are trying to work through that now.”
Many other St. Cloud State students are preparing for graduate school in the College of Health and Wellness Professions, which is focused on delivering inter-professional education where students learn from experts in their field. Throughout their course of study, students explore a range of disciplines, so they gain a greater understanding of their role in providing care to individuals and families, while meeting broader community needs.