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Healthy results for pre-med students at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s

Alex Host already was working in a hospital radiology department when he was 17, so he knew even before he stepped foot on the campus at Saint John’s University that he wanted to become a doctor.

Alarie Chu, on the other hand, didn’t decide to become a pre-med student until near the end of her sophomore year at the College of Saint Benedict. A lot of her friends and classmates, including Host (who went on to become her lab partner), were preparing for health careers and she decided she wanted to go that route, too.

Host and Chu, both of whom graduated in May, took different paths toward the same destination. But each is convinced they wouldn’t have such bright prospects without the support they found at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s.

“I had numerous college visits, and the ability to sit down and talk with faculty here, and how available they were, was amazing to me,” said Host, who is from Brainerd, Minnesota. “It was like, ‘Hey, a student is coming in and is interested in our program, can you take an hour out of your day and meet with him?’ They did, and that was pretty shocking compared to the other campuses I visited.”

Today, he’s preparing for his next campus. With a top-flight score on the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), a rich history of scientific research and a strong supporting resume, he received 10 interview requests from medical schools. He accepted five, resulting in four acceptances and a wait list. Many pre-med students consider themselves lucky with even three interviews and one acceptance. Ultimately, he chose the University of Minnesota over the University of Wisconsin after both schools recruited him hard.

Chu, meanwhile, has landed a position as a scribe with Twin Cities Orthopedics for what she expects will be at least one gap year before starting med school. Despite a near-perfect grade-point average, she wasn’t satisfied with her first run at the MCAT, and she also wants to bolster her medical experience – even though she’s shadowed a CentraCare cardiologist, is president of the Biology Club and volunteers at St. Cloud Hospital.

“I’ve been thinking about how I could get to work with patients every day and continue learning biology,” Chu said. “There are a lot of health care fields. Being a doctor wasn’t the only option. But it’s a way I could make an impact on the world. And that sounds intriguing.”

Success stories like those of Host and Chu aren’t unique at CSB and SJU, and that helps explain why pre-health programs continue to grow at the schools, with pre-med being the largest. The class of 2021, for example, has had 59 graduates apply to graduate schools for medical programs. And the average acceptance rate for a student from Saint Ben’s or Saint John’s easily beats the national average in virtually every discipline – including medical (MD and DO), physician assistant, physical therapy, pharmacy, optometry, veterinary and occupational therapy.

All prospective students need to provide is interest, and drive.

[Links to:

Pre-medical program:

Guideline for planning a pre-med curriculum:

Student resources:

Alum stories:

SJU senior develops into prize recruit for med schools

Host’s interest in medicine can be traced to his childhood, when he suffered from gastrointestinal complications, and he spent a lot of time in hospitals as a patient.

“I had a lot of scans done,” he said. “I was always interested in the images and understanding what was going on with the science. I came in contact with a few physicians who made the experience a lot more tolerable. I noticed the difference an empathetic person can have on your care plan and how that benefits the outcome. That made medicine personal to me.”

When it came time to pick a school, he wanted to choose one where he knew he would get more one-on-one attention than at a larger institution.

“I knew I would need to learn the information to take the MCAT,” Host said. “It’s not a test where you can cram for it, memorize the information, and then dump it. I knew I’d have help when I had questions at Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s. I used that a ton. I’ve been on email chains with an adviser at 1 a.m. I have all kinds of personal phone numbers that I can text at all hours and there’s always a response.”

He estimated academics to be only 25% of his pre-med commitment, however. There was also undergraduate research, including about 1,000 hours on a project to determine how sertraline, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, binds to a specific receptor in the brain. A grant provided funding for acquiring the necessary materials for the project during the school year and was followed with paid work in the summer. To get experience in civic involvement, he served as co-director and operations manager of the CSB Community Kitchen. In four years, he coordinated the delivery of approximately 5,000 meals, mostly to residents of low-income housing.

If that’s not enough, Host also participated in the Student Health Assistants program – which he led as a senior. It’s an immersion experience for pre-health students in partnership with CentraCare. They shadow emergency department professionals, assist with the transfer of patients, and help nurses with log rolls and other hands-on patient care. The students also conduct research for the hospital, and Host and two 2022 grads recently participated in a study of why patients choose care in an emergency department and whether the behavior can be influenced. He flew to Phoenix for the opportunity to present the research at a conference of medical experts and one of the past presidents of the American College of Emergency Physicians invited him to present at their fall conference in Philadelphia.

“All of those are learning experiences that help make you a well-rounded person,” Host said. “That’s something I learned over time about the schools is that the commitment to a strong liberal arts education goes far beyond the classroom.

“When a lot of people look at the school, they see the price tag,” Host added. “But I would highlight the availability to pull some of that money back through your experience … Having those things on my resume made a massive difference so, for me, the experience was worth more than the cost to go here.”

Alex Host working in a lab

Alex Host participated in undegraduate research at SJU and at St. Cloud Hospital. Last year, he participated in a study of why patients choose care in an emergency department and whether the behavior can be influenced. He presented the research at a conference of medical experts in Phoenix and one of the past presidents of the American College of Emergency Physicians invited him to present at their coming fall conference in Philadelphia.

CSB senior evolves to find her calling in medicine

Chu soaked up her experiences at St. Cloud Hospital. One of the most rewarding was her patient interactions through a CSB and SJU creative writing course called Clinical Encounters (ENG 206). As part of the class, she reviewed a list of patients who could be at risk for delirium because of their age and how long they’ve been hospitalized. If they’re willing, she engaged them in conversation. Sometimes it would last a few minutes. Sometimes it went on for an hour or more. And, when it really went well, some patients even requested she come back and visit again.

Once a visit was complete, Chu left the room and logged onto a system computer to chart an array of questions about the patient.

“It might be about how oriented they were or many other characteristics,” Chu said. “I’ve been told it’s helpful to the nurses. We were able to take comments from the patient that might help make their appetite better or so they can sleep better.

“When you’re volunteering, a lot of times you’re doing grunt work,” she added. “But this was rewarding and an opportunity only available through Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s relationship with St. Cloud Hospital. We even got to do charting with patients … I haven’t heard of anybody being able to do that at our age and skill level. To be a volunteer and know that you’re providing knowledge of value is really amazing.”

Chu, whose uncle is a cardiologist, also shadowed a cardiologist from CentraCare. And outside of school, she volunteered to escort visitors to see inpatients.

That’s not to say what she and Host and others learn in the classroom isn’t just as vital. The Peter Engel Science Center and the New Science Center at SJU include teaching and research labs for genetics, anatomy and physiology, ecology and plant biology. And, at CSB, the Ardolf Science Center contains the entire chemistry department.

“Our anatomy and physiology labs are particularly impressive for the standard they require,” Chu said. “A lot of labs are meant to enhance your understanding of the lecture material. I think sometimes there’s some distance between the two in reality. Our labs are structured so that what we’re learning in class matches exactly with the kind of practical experiences available to us. Our computer systems are state-of-the-art and, as became so important with COVID, we were able to remotely view a 3D model of a skeleton, with all the bones and muscles, for example.”

In addition to the Biology Club, she also participated in the German Club and the Plant-Science Alliance.

“There are so many opportunities for students to join in on different club events – including a lot of pre-health clubs,” Chu said. “There are clubs for students who are not science majors and still want to be pre-med. There are a lot of health care fields. Being a doctor isn’t the only option. But for me, once I started to think about how I would get to work with patients every day and continue learning biology, I figured this is the best way I could make an impact on the world.”

Alarie Chu in an outdoor biology lab

Alarie Chu joins other students from the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University for an outdoor biology lab experiment at Lake Sagatagan. She served as president of the Biology Club and also participated in the German Club and the Plant-Science Alliance as a student at Saint Ben’s.

Dedicated, vested faculty develop lasting relationships with students

Mani Campos, who earned a Ph.D. in biology from Penn State and has served as an instructor and advisor at CSB and SJU for more than 25 years, said there are many reasons why the schools have a sterling record as a training ground for students in pre-health – and especially pre-med. There are small class sizes, an affinity for instructors with deep experience in the field to take a strong personal interest in each student, and experiential learning opportunities. CSB and SJU have a student medical assistant partnership with St. Cloud Hospital where undergraduates participate in weekend rotations. There also are medical mission trips to foreign countries and research opportunities for students right on campus.

Campos says the secret is in the relationship between the students and faculty.

“You can go to a lot of places that will disseminate info, but that’s not advising,” he said. “We sit down and create a plan with every student we have. In my career, I don’t think there have been two four-year – or even two-year plans, for that matter – that were exactly the same … and it’s important because a lot of times when a student arrives and wants to be ‘pre-med,’ that’s often the parents talking. A high school graduate may not know what’s involved. We work with them from very early on to combine their field of study – biology, biochemistry, psychology, and we’ve had pre-med students major in English – with the liberal arts and study abroad. It’s not always easy to do, but inevitably our graduates change a lot in four years. I always say that better be the case, otherwise the kids haven’t done their job as students, and we haven’t done ours as faculty.”

CSB and SJU also differ from many similar schools who have committees that evaluate pre-health students and favor those the faculty believes will be most successful. Contrary to the acceptance rate for some others, Campos said the success at CSB and SJU includes students the instructors thought shouldn’t apply to med school – and even in some cases advised them against it – but that just goes to show that you never know when you’ll find a diamond in the rough. The unbiased trust between students and their advisor fosters guidance that continues long after graduation.

“We continue working with them sometimes five or six years after they’ve been accepted to med school,” Campos said. “It’s an ultramarathon and can really make a difference.”

Alex Host and Alarie Chu in pre-med lab

Alex Host (left) and Alarie Chu work with a tablet-based program that replicates human anatomy in a lab at Saint John’s University. The graduated with biology degrees and a pre-med focus this spring. Host is entering medical school this fall. Chu has started a job as a medical scribe and intends to go to med school after a gap year.

Alarie Chu

Alarie Chu

Alex Host

Alex Host

Mani Campos

Mani Campos is a professor teaching biology at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University. He also is coordinator of pre-health programming at the schools.