UMR looks to spread its influence

April 2, 2019

Rochester native Misk Al Zahidy knew early on she wanted to pursue a career in health care.

As a child, Al Zahidy was exposed to hospitals more than most kids her age. When she was 10, her dad died in a car accident. An older sister with Down Syndrome also required frequent hospital visits. And that immersion in the culture — as well as the efforts on behalf of her family — activated her interest in the field.

“I always knew that i wanted to give back in the way the doctors did (for my family),” Al Zahidy said.

Al Zahidy chose to attend the University of Minnesota Rochester, a small, health care-focused school that is gaining a reputation for punching above its weight class. Although the downtown campus only graduates a 100 to 150 gradates each year, its innovative culture and student-centered approach are making ripples in higher education that extend beyond the Med City.

“Our vision is to transform higher education and be a demonstration case” for other schools, said UMR Chancellor Lori Carrell.

As Rochester and Mayo grow, fueled by the $5.6 billion Destination Medical Center economic development initiative, UMR is looking to be both opportunistic and strategic in its growth. Locating classrooms and student labs in One Discovery Square proved “great for our students because of the proximity to researchers and industry,” Carrell said.

In the coming years, UMR will be looking for more housing and faculty space as well as classroom space, as it grows from a school of 700 students into one of 2,500 students. A lot is being discussed and explored but not settled on yet in this fluid situation.

“We don’t want to plop something down to get our needs met. We want to work in concert with what’s being envisioned,” Carrell said. “But all of that is shifting all the time.”

Growing field

The demand for health care workers by Mayo and other providers is only expected to grow. Over the coming years, tens of thousands of job openings, from registered nurses to mental health counselors and physician assistants to pharmacists, will need to be filled. Minnesota’s population is unable to satisfy that demand for talent.

One way UMR is helping to meet the need is by broadening the pool of students interested in a health care career. Most rigorous science programs will only accept students with an ACT score of 28 or above. In its “holistic” approach to admissions, UMR consistently accepts students who score between 24 and 25, and one reason it can accept a broader swath of students is because of the school’s evidence-based teaching practices.

“We can take raw human potential that comes with some motivation and drive and transform that through the beautiful process of education into increased numbers and types of students who can be health care workers,” Carrell said.

Those practices include making students accountable to each other through living, learning communities; Just Ask Centers where students can get homework help; and the availability of student success coaches.

UMR students say they are aware of where resources and help can be found to solve a problem. Whether it be a professor, staff member or success coach, “I know that someone at school is going to be able to help me,” said Al Zahidy, who plans to go into emergency medicine. That’s different from what she hears from her peers at larger, more conventional schools, who are often unaware of where to turn to get help.

Bridging the gap

Early indications also show that UMR has proven successful in eliminating the achievement gap between white majority students and under-represented students. These include students who are first-generation college students, students of color and Pell grant-eligible students based on socio-economic status. These graduates will help diversify a workforce that right now does not reflect the overall population.

“We had the privilege of starting from scratch here,” Carrell said. “So these basic, high-impact practices could be put in place at the outset.”

These innovative practices are creating a model that other institutions of higher learning are taking note of. It’s in that way that UMR’s impact and influence has the potential to be the most far-reaching, by shining a light on teaching practices and techniques that other colleges will want to emulate.

“Our mission and our calling as educators is to do what works,” Carrell said. “You will find that collectively educators want that. But how to do that? And how to afford that? It will be a different process for other colleges to change than it was for us. That’s why UMR is such a wonderful place to be.”