Students Excel in UNCG’s Pre-Medical Programs

Posted on April 03, 2024

Three students gather in the hall with advisor, Robin Maxwell. Banner on wall behind them lists info about preprofessional programs.

When students set their sights on medical school, veterinary school, or another health-related professional track, they’re in for years of studies, internships, and extracurriculars to prepare them for demanding careers. It’s a lofty goal that only a committed few can obtain, but at UNC Greensboro, students following these paths are finding unique guidance and opportunities that enable success in these rigorous programs.    

Acceptance rates into health-related schools for UNCG undergraduates are higher than the national average for medical (med) school, physician’s assistant (PA) school, physical therapy (PT) school, and veterinary (vet) school. These stats are impressive, but our students are best at communicating the intangibles they’ve found at UNCG that make our health-related pre-professional programs stand apart.  

Daniel Araya: Resources Make the Difference 

Fourth-year biology major Daniel Araya points down the hall in the Nursing Instructional Building to the wall outside of advisor Robin Maxwell’s office. “That’s my transformative spot on this campus,” he says with a laugh, but it’s not an exaggeration.  

“This wall is packed with invaluable resources, including year-to-year course advising, summer internship opportunities, and extensive information on what medical schools seek in prospective students,” Araya says. “It’s where I first learned about an internship opportunity at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, which led to me to spend two additional summers there.” 

Student sits in a lounge in the Nursing Instruction Building with a confident smirk.
“My advisors have fueled me with a deep sense of confidence. They’ve empowered me to thrive in demanding courses and balance numerous extracurricular activities.”  – Daniel Araya

In addition to the resources and guidance provided by Maxwell, Araya credits undergraduate research as the “most significant opportunity” he was afforded at UNCG.  

“I was fortunate to join the first research lab I applied to in my sophomore year, introducing me to a vibrant community. This involvement propelled me to present my research findings nationwide. At a larger university, securing research opportunities and funding for travel can be highly competitive. I believe it would have been much more challenging to achieve a comparable experience elsewhere.” 

After his graduation in May, Araya will be taking the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) this summer and then spending a gap year in South Africa at Cape Town University, where he’ll participate in a marine biology research lab.   

The more he has learned about the healthcare system, the more motivated Araya is to serve. “The most significant insight I’ve gained is the noticeable lack of diversity among physicians,” Araya says. “It falls upon the shoulders of the next generation to actively work towards enhancing diversity within the healthcare field.” 

Valeria Calderon: Athlete to Physician Assistant by Way of Kinesiology 

For Valeria Calderon, UNCG was the perfect environment to turn her passion for exercise into a career. Originally from Puerto Rico, she moved to High Point in 2014 and came to UNCG as a student athlete on the volleyball team.    

UNCG women's volleyball player stretches to hit the ball.
“When I came here in 2020, the Nursing and Instructional Building was just finished, which drew my attention because it is such a beautiful building with a great learning environment. Many of my classes took place there and it has been my go-to study spot all four years at UNCG.” – Valeria Calderon (photo submitted by UNCG Athletics)

With aspirations to become a physician assistant, Calderon took her advisor’s advice and chose a major that inspired her to supplement her required biology and chemistry courses.

Kinesiology gave me a wonderful experience to learn more about exercise physiology, psychology, motor development, and even gave me great background on human anatomy and possible injuries I may see as a physician’s assistant,” Calderon explained.  

PA schools and med schools are adjusting their acceptance criteria to prioritize well-rounded applicants who can relate to patients, which makes varied majors and student experiences all the more important. For Calderon, volleyball has limited her extra time for research and patient care experience, but balancing athletics and a degree in Kinesiology will be an advantage on PA school applications.  

“Being on the team emphasized discipline, as well as other essential skills I will need in my near future such as time management, leadership, and responsibility.” 

It’s not easy to juggle activities and rigorous courses in different departments of the University, but advisors keep pre-professional students’ eyes on the prize. Calderon graduates in May and plans to spend a year as a Clinical Medical Assistant to obtain the patient care experience she needs before applying to PA school. She appreciates the customized guidance she’s received. 

“Professor Maxwell provided many options for courses to take, different routes for getting my patient care hours, and provided me with a diverse list of PA schools with requirements I’d need for admission to their specific program.” Calderon beams, “Anytime I felt stuck in the process and didn’t know what to do, I could always depend on her encouragement.” 

Trinity Shealey: The Total Package for Vet School 

The national acceptance rate for vet school is 12.5%, the most competitive of all the health-related professional schools. In 2023, UNCG’s rate was 28%. Trinity Shealey is a product of this success.   

Shealey arrived in Greensboro with a lifelong love of animals and a strong science background at a STEM early college. She loved the exploratory learning encouraged at Lloyd International Honors College. Being a biology major was a natural fit, but she was surprised to find herself drawn to classical studies courses as well.   

“Being an honors college student helps me with balance. I must have the organic chemistry and physics courses for pre-vet, but I can mix it with reading about Greek mythology or studying philosophy,” she explains. 

Shealey thrived in this well-rounded curriculum, maintaining a 3.94 grade point average and taking advantage of campus activities, undergraduate research and a study abroad trip to South Korea. 

Many students take an extra year after graduation to build their applications with research and practical experience, but Shealey has already received an acceptance to North Carolina State University’s vet school. She credits UNCG research opportunities and the help she received on her essays for making her application shine. 

She spent two years working with Dr. Brian McLean studying shrew, small mammals that look like tiny mice. Although undergraduates in larger universities are often relegated to menial lab tasks, Shealey’s work was hands-on: “I did dissections. I got to do DNA coding and sequencing. I worked with scientific machinery. I went on the field work trips.” 

Pre-vet student meets with advisor in Nursing Instructional Building.
“At college you aren’t just taking four years to be studying. You’re also taking four years to figure yourself out, and learn about who you are, and meet other people, and experience programs and just kind of figure your life out.” – Trinity Shealey

Assistance from The Writing Center and edits from her advisor were invaluable as Shealey prepared her vet school application essays. “I was in the writing center every single day for like two months straight,” she says. “Professor Maxwell was so helpful with stylization and rephrasing things. She knows what the admissions offices are looking for.” 

Looking back at her undergraduate experience, she praises the collaborative environment she found at UNCG. “Imagine being in an animal science undergraduate class at NC State where your entire class is fighting for research programs and activities. At UNCG, we don’t have that pressure. People are working together rather than everyone fighting for themselves.”  

Coren O’Brien: First-Year Pre-Med Student Hits the Ground Running 

Student stands arms crossed in Nursing Instructional Building.
“I have been surprised by the resources available to students at UNCG. Tutoring centers are always open. The Writing Center is so helpful. Accessibility of faculty during office hours has been great. And there’s a focus on mental health and prioritizing sleep and exercise that I’m grateful for.”  – Coren O’Brien

High achieving students’ ears perk at the mention of participating in research as an undergraduate, but few can join a lab in their first year of college. Coren O’Brien is on a fast track for med school at UNCG. He has already joined Dr. Yashomati Patel’s lab, which is studying cancer cell metabolism, particularly in breast cancer.  

“I have participated in cell culture, blotting, different kinds of imaging,” he says. “And I’m working on a paper that I hope will be published by the time I graduate.” 

All this will keep him busy, especially given that he plans to graduate in two years, but he wasn’t always this motivated. There were personal factors that narrowed his focus on a preprofessional track when he landed at UNCG from his hometown, Miami.  

“I changed places, routines, and habits, and I was deliberate about it. I still sometimes think med school is too competitive and something that maybe I can’t do, but that’s where advising comes in.” 

O’Brien relies on guidance from Caitlin Saraphis in the College of Arts and Sciences and Robin Maxwell as his pre-med advisor. Maxwell directs him to extracurriculars and experience that med schools look for and Saraphis works with him to fit the right classes into his schedule, so he can graduate early.  

“Professor Maxwell helps me diversify myself as an applicant so that I’m more than just X GPA and X research and X clinical hours,” he says. “Advising is the number one plus to going to school here. I wouldn’t be where I am without it.” 

He also credits the availability of opportunities at UNCG. “I hadn’t taken my first bio class when I was accepted into an undergraduate research program. I just walked in and talked to Dr. Patel, and I was admitted. There’s a lot of space here to show initiative, and a lot more appreciation for those who do show initiative.” 

O’Brien’s girlfriend is also pre-med at UNC-Chapel Hill and is struggling to find similar opportunities as a first-year student. “She’s overwhelmed because there are so many extracurriculars that you can apply for, but there’s much more competition and she must have prerequisites to participate.” 

Alternatively, O’Brien’s problem is finding the time to take advantage of all the opportunities he’s found at UNCG. He currently works as a medical scribe, has a research position with the National Institutes of Health this summer, signed-up for classes for his EMT certification, applied to be a resident advisor next year, and he’s also the president of the swimming club.  

He admits that pursuing med school isn’t an easy path, but his advisors ask questions along the way to make sure he’s committed and to ensure that he’s prioritizing his mental health. “Professor Maxwell wants to make sure medicine is the right fit for you. She works to prepare us for years of study and long hours and challenging work-life balance. You’ve got to really want it to take all that on.” 

Story by Becky Deakins, University Communications.
Photography by Sean Norona, unless otherwise noted.

Young nurse stands in front of Moses Cone Hospital.

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