Students in Professor Jeffrey Copeland's Life Sciences Practicum course explore careers in medicine. EMU's graduates have an 80 percent acceptance rate to medical school; a 100 percent acceptance percentages to physical therapy school and 92% to physician's assistant programs. From left: Isaac Spicher, Hannah Giagnocavo, Jessie Landis, Julie Weaver, and Garrett Howard. Not pictured: Cindi Boyer. (Photo by Derrick Chirinos)

Students shadowing healthcare practitioners see into the future

Every Tuesday for four hours, Julie Weaver gets a glimpse of her future. She’s shadowing physical therapists at Sentara RMH Sports Medicine and Orthopedic Center. The setting is exactly where the Eastern Mennonite University student hopes to be in the future.

Her experience is part of a Life Sciences Practicum open to all students who are considering a career in health sciences. This spring semester, six EMU students are participating – they are future doctors, physical therapists, and physician’s assistants.

“The goal of the practicum is to provide clinical exposure and dialogue with health care practitioners,” said Professor Jeff Copeland, director of the pre-professional health sciences program. “EMU has offered this course for years and it has been invaluable to students entering medical or physical therapy school. The clinical experience lifts a curtain to show EMU students what it is like to interact with patients and to understand health plans.  For many, it is the first taste of what it is like to work in the profession.”

Weaver says she highly recommends the experience. “It gets you into the real world instead of reading or hearing about it. I’m seeing exactly what a physical therapist does in a day, which often includes lots of documentation, patient interaction, and hands-on care and this is helping me solidify that this is actually what I want to do.”

Observing communication styles with patients, hearing the pros and cons of different specialties, learning about different treatment methods — these are common ways in which EMU students have gained knowledge and valuable hours as they explored their future.

Shadowing is a great way to interact directly with a potential career field and ask professionals any question that you may have about the field,” said Hannah Giagnocavo, another pre-physical therapy major who spends her Tuesdays at Wampler Rehab in Harrisonburg. “Shadowing can help you grow in confidence and certainty about your future and whether you find the career you’re interested in enjoyable or not. Exposure is key.” 

Amber Shank, shown here during her shadowing practicum in 2018, studied histotechnology under EMU’s partner program at Sentara RMH. (Photo by Andrew Strack)

Giagnocavo observes interactions, evaluations and approaches to treatment plans. That exposure has given her not only a lot of ideas about how to approach scenarios but also the confidence to know there’s different ways to help patients. She learned a lot about how each therapist brings “their own approach to a similar problem.” She’s also learned more about her own interest in rehabilitation research and new treatment methods, and is considering how that interest might guide her next steps. 

Jessie Landis is a pre-med major spending time in a pediatrics practice. She has shadowed before this semester and urges students to get started on this unique learning experience early. 

“Don’t wait to do it,” she said. Shadowing is a requirement on medical school applications, but “also an incredible opportunity to learn and see what the life of a doctor really looks like.” Her various experiences have given her insight into different approaches and a comfort level in interacting with medical staff and in different facilities. 

Shadowing has confirmed her future profession, though she’s not sure what her preferred speciality will be. “I can see myself in that role and it gives me so much joy to think about caring for people in the way I’ve watched physicians at work,” Landis said.

Similarly, Cindi Boyer isn’t sure what her speciality will be, but she’s excited to continue exploring a career as a physician’s assistant. She’s worked alongside a PA at a local dermatology practice, who is “great at educating me about and explaining different nuances of common skin conditions.”

One of the reasons she has enjoyed spending time in a medical practice: “These experiences can show you a glimpse into your own possible future.”

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