When Jing Chen recently walked through the front doors of the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, she embarked on a four-year journey that will be marked by challenging coursework, intensive problem-based learning, extensive patient interaction, and compelling research.

Chen is not only a new medical student. This native of Fujian, China, is also a new mother and a new citizen of the United States.

“I always wanted to be a physician,” she said.

The route she took to pursue her dream was far from traditional, highlighted by a move to the United States in 2006 to start a doctoral program in chemistry at Johns Hopkins University. Four years into the program, she realized she still wanted to follow her dream of becoming a doctor. She finished her degree, spent two additional years on her pre-med academic requirements, and moved to Roanoke.

This week, Chen continued her journey to become a physician when she began orientation with the 41 other men and women who make up the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine’s Class of 2018. 

The new class is already setting benchmarks. Women make up exactly half the class, a first for the school. The students made the most selective admissions cut in the school’s history. Only 1 percent of the more than 3,500 applicants could matriculate. In addition, 33 of the 42 incoming students came with exceptional research experience, and 21 percent have advanced degrees.

“Every class at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine is composed of exceptional students,” said Dr. Cynda Johnson, dean of the school. “In this respect, this class is no different. But every class has its own personality from day one. They were especially interactive and friendly with each other and everyone they met throughout their week of orientation.”

Orientation is an intense week-long event in which new students are introduced to everything from the school’s curriculum, learning environment, and academic standards to policies and procedures, financial aid, and student counseling. Highlights of the week include lunch with Roanoke Mayor David Bowers and City Manager Christopher Morrill and an evening of baseball with the Salem Red Sox.

Katharine Sourbeer from McLean, Virginia, said the patient-centered, problem-based learning curriculum was one of the factors that attracted her to the school.

“I like the small-school atmosphere,” she said. “I’ve talked to the other students, and everyone seems enthusiastic about the learning style.” Sourbeer joined the school by way of Duke University, where she conducted prostate cancer research while earning a bachelor’s in biology.

Tyler Johnson from Alexandria, Virginia, graduated from the University of Virginia in 2012 with degrees in biology and English. Johnson entered the university with his sights on law school, but that changed during his first year. He was riding in the front seat of a car when a family member in the backseat began having a seizure. He tried to help his loved one while the driver sped to the hospital.

“I wished I could have done more,” he said. “The experience changed my direction entirely; from that moment, I knew I wanted to pursue medicine.”

Johnson was drawn to the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine for the student camaraderie that comes from small class sizes and the school’s emphasis on research.

Research was also a big draw for Dillon Cockrell of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in neuroscience.

“I’m looking for a well-rounded education,” he said. “And I want the chance to do higher-level research, which I can do here, more so than anywhere else.”

Diana Zychowski, of Chicago, came to the school from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in molecular and cellular biology, and the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she earned a master’s in public health.

It was the sense of community she felt when she first visited the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine that kept her sights on returning as a student.

“I knew this was my school,” she said. “It was such a sense of community and family.”

The Class of 2018 completed undergraduate work at 24 institutions. Alma mater–based rivalries will undoubtedly emerge: Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill tied for most students, at six each, followed by Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia, at four each. Johns Hopkins University bestowed at least one undergraduate or graduate degree on four students, as did Georgetown University on three. Six students earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of California system.

The Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine opened its doors to its first class in August 2010 and graduated its first class this past May. The following month, the school earned full accreditation from the Liaison Committee on Medical Education and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

Written by Catherine Doss.


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