For La Salle’s pre-med students, a one-of-a-kind experiential learning opportunity

April 29, 2021

Students have volunteered and shadowed professionals at the University’s COVID-19 testing center.

When R. Scott Cook, D.O., felt his phone vibrating, he stopped in his tracks to glance down at his buzzing device. Cook was on the receiving end of hand X-rays that had been sent to him by a former colleague.

Since January, Cook—La Salle’s assistant vice president of student wellness—has overseen operations of the campus’ COVID-19 testing center. Four undergraduate biology majors were shadowing Cook’s every move in the testing center, just as that text from a former colleague came in.

The timing was pure kismet.

“The students and I, we stopped what we were doing and I said, ‘Let’s go over these X-rays and talk about this case,’” Cook said. “We had an informal discussion. I got tremendous insight into how they think. Simultaneously, I’m able to get these already-engaged students to feel like they’re a part of something much bigger than this single moment.”

In recent weeks, La Salle’s COVID-19 testing center has served a dual role for the University community. In addition to it acting as the on-campus hub for surveillance testing, it also has provided experiential learning opportunities for nearly a dozen undergraduate biology majors who aspire to attend medical school.

In the midst of a public health pandemic, opportunities for undergraduate pre-med students to volunteer or shadow physicians in clinical settings—hospitals, clinics, medical centers, and beyond—have diminished significantly or faced cancellation. All the while, medical schools customarily seek applicants with 100 or more volunteer hours, according to the American Medical Association. A trio of Miami surgeons, in a February article in the Journal of Surgical Research, called on educators to use the pandemic as an opportunity to “find alternative ways” to prepare the next generation of medical professionals and caregivers. In specific terms, they called this inflection point “an opportunity to refine the medical school application process.”

Healthcare professionals, over the course of the pandemic, have been wary of introducing into their settings anyone other than practice partners, colleagues, and patients. And even as restrictions ease and these essential learning opportunities come back online, it’s likely that medical students will receive preferential consideration.

For undergraduate students like those at La Salle, it’s left them in a bind of no fault of their own.

That’s where Cook comes in.

Starting in late March, a handful of La Salle undergraduates began logging volunteer hours at TreeTops Café—the home of the University’s campus testing center. A team of University faculty and staff who work alongside Cook have created software accounts for the students. The students register patients arriving for COVID-19 testing. They record the tests into the center’s tracking system. They guide patients through the process. They even engage in difficult conversations with patients who have tested positive.

“What I’ve seen mostly from our students is the joy and gratitude that they are able to get some tangible experience and an introduction to their field of choice,” said Cook, a member of La Salle’s leadership team that helped guide the University in its return to an in-person, on-campus experience in Spring 2021. “Honestly, I’ve been impressed. They want to sit down and share their goals. They want to learn, and that’s what we’re here to help with.”

“Schools are very aware that opportunities are limited or even shut down,” said Jenna Soriano, ’21, who’s majoring in biology and integrated science, business, and technology. “Trying to (volunteer) where possible, or even virtually, is a good option showing you are making a true effort.”

Volunteering at the testing center has produced positive results in key functional and academic areas for the students.

Moyosoluwa Shokunbi, ’22, a biology major from Allentown, has strengthened her communication skills while directing patients to their nasal pharyngeal tests or a seating area to await their results. Another biology major—Patrick Cunning, ’23, of Marlton, N.J.—has learned about how the virus works at a cellular level.

“I have learned a lot about what it takes to be a physician and the heart you need in order to operate the most effectively in this line of work,” said Jonathan Jonassaint, ’21, a chemistry major who aspires to work in sports medicine. “There is a selflessness that first needs to be achieved then you can be the most help to others. I am grateful for this experience, and it has been a monumental steppingstone in shifting my mentality.”

—Christopher A. Vito