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A Launchpad to Medical Success

News of Note

Smith’s health professions advising office empowers students to thrive in medical careers

Dr. Deborah Davis ’76 works with Smith’s health professions advising office.

Photograph by Jimell Greene


Published September 26, 2023

Smith may not offer a traditional pre-med program, but it does have a powerful resource through the Lazarus Center for Career Development to assist students who want to pursue that professional path. The health professions advising office guides students interested in any career involving medicine or health care, including veterinary medicine, nursing, physical therapy, and dentistry. That guidance starts with a student’s curiosity about career options and goes all the way through the intense process of applying to medical or other types of schools.

“We try to be a one-stop shop,” says Elly Mons, director of health professions advising. “We work with a board of faculty health professions advisers representing different majors and divisions in the college. We’re here to be the coaches and the advisers to help students figure out what is the best path for them.”

Mons invites all students and alums to access the office for information and support. “We work with them to create a plan and help point them toward resources,” she says. Services include helping students gain clinical experience through internships, counseling students on their choice of classes, and offering discounted workshops to prepare for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) or Dental Admission Test (DAT). Among the most valuable resources, however, is the network of Smith alums working in the medical field. They volunteer to assist the health professions advising office in myriad ways, doing presentations, conducting mock interviews, assessing coursework, mentoring students, and more.

“I’ve worked at other institutions where we did not interact with the alum network in the way that we do here,” Mons says. “Who better to speak to our students than someone who was making a lot of the same decisions that they are now making?”

Elly Mons, director of health professions advising, encourages all students to access the office.

Photograph by Jessica Scranton

Deborah Davis ’76, a medical doctor who specializes in pediatric cardiac anesthesia and critical care at Nemours Children’s Health in Delaware, has been working with the health professions advising office at Smith for about six years. She was invited to speak at a leadership conference on campus, which led to lecturing to a neuroscience class. “That was really well-received,” Davis says. “I applied real-life scenarios to what the students were learning, explaining, ‘This is why you’re studying this—because it really has applicability.’”

Davis has helped students build an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine, more commonly known as a heart-lung machine, in one of Associate Professor of Engineering Sarah Moore’s classes. She has advised students on research thesis papers, course selection, and which career—nurse, physician assistant, medical doctor—is the best fit. “I talk to them about the trials and the triumphs of going into the health profession, serving others, and making sacrifices,” she says.

Davis says students are fascinated to hear her story because of the historical perspective it provides. When she went to Hahnemann Medical College in the late 1970s, only 13% of the students were women, and women were not allowed in the doctors lounge. But Davis—who eventually became the first woman president of a medical school class at Hahnemann—shares these experiences to inspire others. “I tell these stories to let them know that they can do it too,” she says.

In terms of academics, both Davis and Mons believe that Smith students have an advantage in attending a liberal arts college. “Every applicant to a health profession program has to take some combination of prerequisites,” Mons says. “But we want students to study what they’re interested in so they’ll thrive and do well. If you’re a dance major or a philosophy major, you can still take those prerequisites. They can be layered within the major requirements, which is part of what we help students do. Do we need to have a pre-med major? No.”

The Power of Connections

New initiative transforms Smithies’ job search

With the soaring cost of American higher education, students and their families are increasingly looking at colleges through a “return on investment” lens. “Students want to know they will graduate with advanced degree prospects or with a job that has a competitive salary and prospects for career mobility and professional satisfaction,” says Faith McClellan, dean of career development.

To that end, the Lazarus Center for Career Development is launching a number of initiatives to provide opportunities for students to better prepare for careers and stand out among other job applicants. The first— career communities—launches this fall. Communities are grouped into six areas: business, finance, consulting, and entrepreneurship; government, law, international affairs, and policy; arts, media, and communications; education, social impact, and nonprofits; science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM); and health professions. Each community is made up of alum professionals, industry specialists, potential employers, and faculty, along with students. Students can select their community or communities—online or in person—based on their interests. They will then have access to a wide variety of programming that includes skill-building workshops and experiential activities, such as job shadowing and site visits.

Building relationships is a key component of the career communities concept. According to Deborah Wijnhoven, assistant dean of employer partnerships and career communities, it is “the key to success for students in both finding a job and building a long-term career plan.” Students will not only be able to obtain advice from experts, but they will also be able to find mentors and develop a network and support team that will follow them throughout their time as a student and up to five years after graduation. Through career communities, students will receive personalized assistance from coaches who can address the advantages and challenges of pursuing a particular field, and they will have the support of a like-minded community, with people who care about their development and outcomes.

“The career communities model is part of a broader effort to break down the traditional walls of the career center,” says Manat Wooten, director of career communities. “Research shows that if students can identify an internal advocate for their job search— someone connected to the employer—they are over 10 times more likely to earn the position. Learning how to build social capital within an industry takes practice, and that’s where advice from career center staff and interaction with career communities can help.”

Six Areas of Career Communities Launch This Fall

  • Education, social impact, and nonprofits
  • Business, finance, consulting, and entrepreneurship
  • Government, law, international affairs, and policy
  • STEM
  • Health professions
  • Arts, media, and communications

A major benefit of the health professions advising office is that it provides an equal opportunity for all Smith students to pursue careers in medicine or health care—even students who may not have received a comprehensive high school education in science, technology, engineering, and math. “We recognize students come from many different backgrounds and may not know how to access all the resources that are available at the college,” Mons says. “Helping connect them to alums who might come from similar backgrounds is invaluable. Students can meet alums who started where they did and are now in their career of choice because they received the assistance they needed. It is crucial to get the right information to students and have them know they have a full team of support here.”

Mons says one of her office’s major responsibilities is to ensure that students—especially those applying for highly competitive spots at medical schools—are working with accurate information. Some fallacies out there, she says, are that no one gets into medical school with a grade of C on their record, that you’re doomed if your MCAT score is not above a certain number, and that you shouldn’t even think about reapplying to a school that already rejected you. “I want students to be fully informed with correct information, not bogus information that will potentially deter them from making the right decisions for themselves,” Mons says. “Every student is unique, so what’s right for one student is not necessarily going to be the same story for another individual.”

Davis says she would “100% recommend a liberal arts education” to any student considering a career in medicine or health care. “It gives you a way in which to interact with your patient that’s not just from a scientific perspective,” she says. “A liberal arts education teaches you how to read and think critically and write effectively, which are important in whatever career you go into, but particularly in the sciences.” Mons adds, “A Smith education gives students a liberal arts foundation, research experience, and exposure to working within the community, so they have a really solid base to do whatever they want after graduation.”

With The Help of Health Professions Advising...

Olivia Fauvner ’14

Major: Dance

After Smith: Was a professional dancer and choreographer until entering Tufts University School of Medicine in 2019. Recently graduated and started a surgical residency at the University of Vermont.

“At Smith I was able to pursue dance while fulfilling pre-med requirements. That was awesome because I knew I was interested in both, even if it was unclear at the time how dance and medicine would coexist in my life.

“It’s hard to overstate the impact that Elly Mons and the health professions advising office had on my journey to medical school. I was no longer a student when I began investigating what it would take to make the leap to medical school; however, Smith showed up for me. I really felt that Elly believed in me. From MCAT [Medical College Admission Test] support to essay writing, secondary applications to interviews, she was there for it. I am not sure I could have done it without her.”

Jueun Lee ’23

Major: Neuroscience

After Smith: Taking a gap year to apply to medical schools.

“The health professions advising program has guided me through my pre-health journey since my first year. They have connected me with peer mentors; kept me on track for pre-health requirements; and found important funding sources, experiences, and programs. Deborah Davis ’76, a physician whose stories and experiences have been incredibly inspiring, and Alexis Ziemba ’12, Mellon Visiting Assistant Professor of Neuroscience at Smith, have always been incredibly supportive of my journey to medical school—especially when I have had doubts about myself.

“To Smithies interested in a career in health care, my best advice would be to reach out to the health professions advising office as early as possible. Even if you are unsure about your interests, they can help you figure out ways to explore the possibilities and build a path to where you want to go.”

Xin (Julie) Xiong ’23

Major: Biochemistry; minor in women and gender studies

After Smith: Taking a gap year to work as a dental assistant.

“Through the health professions advising office, I was able to get the information I needed to decide whether I should go to medical school or dental school. I had trouble finding shadowing opportunities until I connected with Smith alumnae. With their help, I was able to find opportunities to shadow physicians at a hospital in Greenville, South Carolina, and dentists at a practice in Northampton. Without the help of alumnae, I would not have been able to get enough shadowing hours.

“My advice is: Don’t be afraid to ask around. There are a lot of opportunities available. Ask your peers, ask your adviser, ask the health professions advising program. You will get a lot of help from the people around you.”