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Hendrix Pre-Med Spanish Major the First Undergraduate in UAMS Geriatric Student Scholars Program

Sarah Wilson-0164final_web.jpg

CONWAY, Ark. (December 13, 2019) — A Spanish class that did more than satisfy a course requirement, an Odyssey project that included volunteering in a hospice, and a 10-day stretch of shadowing medical professionals in Spain have come together to bring one Hendrix College senior’s career and calling into focus. 

Looking back at these experiences, Sarah Wilson’s acceptance in Fall 2019 as the first undergraduate in the year-long Geriatric Student Scholars program at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences seems a natural outcome of her immersion in the liberal arts. She credits several experiences since arriving at Hendrix in 2016 with helping her reach this point in her path to becoming a physician. 

A native of the northeast Arkansas town of Trumann and a first-generation college student, Wilson chose Hendrix because of the options the Odyssey Program offered (and she cites the well-cared-for campus cat colony as a bonus that helped seal the deal). She signed up for a Spanish course “to get this language requirement done, because I thought I wanted to be a chemistry major.” She soon realized, though, that her appreciation for the language and culture could influence how she pursued a career in medicine.

After hearing Spanish professor Dr. Gabby Vidal-Torreira share some of her experiences seeking medical care as a non-native English speaker, Wilson realized her passion for helping people understand each other could be used to provide better care.

“She was basically talking about the nervousness that she felt whenever she went into a healthcare facility in the United States,” Wilson said. “And I thought, ‘If I can just take that uneasiness that they’re feeling, and put it off on me….’” 

Wilson chose Spanish as her major and continued taking classes in the pre-medicine pre-professional track. She learns about the language, of course, but also about the growing and changing culture—knowledge that will serve her well in the context of caring for the Latinx population of geriatric patients in Arkansas.

The Geriatric Student Scholars program, sponsored by the UAMS Arkansas Geriatric Education Collaborative (AGEC), is designed to increase health professions students’ interest and exposure to older adults, to improve knowledge of older adults and the specialized care they need, and to promote interprofessional collaboration among health professions students. Laura Spradley, outreach coordinator for AGEC, credits the organization’s strong community partnership with Hendrix and the involvement of AGEC director Robin McAtee, Ph.D., RN, FACHE, as crucial factors in the decision to support an undergraduate student scholar this year. 

“The student had to demonstrate an interest in the field of geriatrics, the issues facing older adults, and a willingness to learn about interprofessional collaborations and the role of community involvement in caring for older adults,” Spradley said. “Sarah’s interest in geriatric medicine and in particular, rural healthcare in Arkansas made her an ideal candidate.”

While Wilson plans to pursue her M.D. and open her own geriatric-centered private practice in a rural area, the Geriatric Student Scholars program serves a variety of future healthcare professionals. For example, one member of this year’s cohort is in the audiology program, and another is enrolled in the College of Pharmacy. All members of the cohort plan on careers that consider the needs of the geriatric population, but Wilson hopes to work exclusively with geriatric patients. “That’s my target group; this is what I want to do,” she said. 

Geriatric Student Scholars have numerous opportunities to learn about the needs of the aging population. The scholars attend a minimum of four events—though Wilson has signed up for twice that many purely because the topics interest her so much. She recently attended a seminar on considerations for seniors in the context of disaster response, and a listening session with the Age-Friendly Little Rock Commission that brought seniors to the table to help prioritize the needs of their community. Upcoming events include one centered on how the opioid crisis affects seniors.

Wilson’s first experience at Hendrix relating to care for geriatric patients came through studying end-of-life issues and volunteering in a hospice as part of the Odyssey Program’s Medicine in Society project. She applied to participate in Medicine in Society’s pilot year because of her own experience: During high school, she had seen the positive difference that hospice care made in her great-grandmother’s last few months of life. 

“[Hospice] gave me the gift of being able to truly see my grandma happy as she was getting herself ready to leave,” she said. Wilson appreciated having the ability to help others through the Medicine in Society project in ways similar to how she and her family had received help. 

The Medicine in Society readings assigned by philosophy professor Dr. Peg Falls-Corbitt included some options for students to choose a topic that interested them. 

“I read a lot about the Hispanic geriatric community, and that’s where I learned that specifically in the Hispanic community, taking care of that group of people is important,” Wilson said. “As a Spanish major who wants to go into medicine, it was almost like the piece just fell right in where it fit.”

She recalled an experience volunteering at the bedside of a hospice patient who was bilingual and dealing with dementia; the woman seemed to drift between her two languages. When the woman spoke Spanish to the hospice staff, they began to look to Wilson for help working through the language barrier. Wilson said that “just being able to go in there with her and understand her, regardless of what place she was in, what time period of her life she was in” reinforced the medical community’s need for Wilson’s blend of skills and interests. 

Sarah Donaghy, the coordinator of community partnerships for Hendrix, says Wilson’s participation in programs like Medicine in Society and the UAMS Geriatric Student Scholar Program embodies how engaged learning dovetails with the Hendrix motto, “unto the whole person.” Donaghy serves as the liaison between the Medicine in Society project and its partner, Hospice Home Care, and also between Hendrix and the UAMS Geriatric Education Collaborative.

“These kinds of experiences build on each other and affirm or clarify academic decisions while also influencing professional and life choices to come,” Donaghy said. “They also open doors. Medicine in Society illuminated for Sarah an interest in pursuing geriatric medicine, which led her to apply for the Geriatric Student Scholar Program. Now, Sarah will not only further distill her interest in geriatrics and expand her resume, knowledge, and skills, but also network with professionals in the field and gain exposure to a medical school environment.” 

Wilson followed Medicine in Society with another Odyssey project that provided a window into physicians’ experiences and more exposure to a bilingual environment. Thanks to Odyssey grant funding, she spent 10 days working with hospital professionals in Spain. In addition to speaking with doctors and patients, she spoke frequently with medical school students. “They wanted to practice their English and I wanted to practice my Spanish, and so we just traded off,” she said. 

Wilson appreciates the variety of experiences available to her through Hendrix, such as volunteer opportunities that connect students with the Conway community. “Without that exposure, I probably would’ve just pushed myself in to a chemistry degree,” she said. She values the ability to follow the pre-med track while pursuing a major outside the Natural Sciences area, and believes it enriches her overall liberal arts experience and will ultimately benefit her medical career. Support from her advisor, Spanish professor Dr. Lilian Contreras-Silva, makes all the difference for Wilson, too, whether or not the challenge she’s facing relates directly to her major. Contreras-Silva provided crucial encouragement when Wilson struggled with biochemistry her junior year. “I was ready to give up the pre-med track until she convinced me I could do it,” she said. “Any time I don’t feel 100% confident in myself, I just go to her office or email her, and she’s beyond supportive.”

With commencement on the horizon, Wilson is making plans for a gap year while she applies to medical schools. She hopes to find work as a medical translator during that time. She’s also taking a Medical Anthropology course, where discussions focus on the need for cultural competence and cultural sensitivity in healthcare. “Because you can be culturally competent and know about the other culture without being culturally sensitive,” she said. “That’s another reason why I really wanted to be a Spanish major—not just for my future career, but also because if I can allow a group of people to feel much more comfortable and much more understood, that’s what I would like to do.”

About Hendrix College

A private liberal arts college in Conway, Arkansas, Hendrix College consistently earns recognition as one of the country’s leading liberal arts institutions, and is featured in Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges. Its academic quality and rigor, innovation, and value have established Hendrix as a fixture in numerous college guides, lists, and rankings. Founded in 1876, Hendrix has been affiliated with the United Methodist Church since 1884. To learn more, visit