There are many paths to becoming a doctor. As a first-grader, Sarah Barnhardt already knew she wanted to be a physician when she grew up, and she never wavered from that goal. Emily Davis began working as a nursing assistant while still a teenager, aiming to one day enter the medical field, but she didn’t know exactly what that would look like.
Each of them found her future at Wingate University, thanks to the Rocovich Scholars program. The program, which smooths the path to medical school for motivated undergraduates who meet a set of criteria, gave them medical-school acceptance as Wingate sophomores, taking much of the worry out of the process.
This spring, the pair became the first Rocovich Scholars from Wingate to graduate from medical school when they earned degrees from the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
For Barnhardt and Davis, being accepted into the Rocovich program meant no Medical College Admission Test, and a lot less stress.
“I didn’t have to take the MCAT,” Barnhardt says. “I didn’t have to worry about applying to a bunch of different medical schools and traveling for interviews and stuff like that. During my junior and senior years, I was able to focus on my coursework and also my extracurricular activities and just enjoy my time on campus.”
VCOM, which is reevaluating its articulation agreements with universities, is discussing with Wingate what a future agreement between the two parties will look like.
Under the previous agreement, Wingate offered two tracks: the Guaranteed Interview Program and the Rocovich Scholars/Early Acceptance Program. Guaranteed Interview was for third- and fourth-year Wingate students who met a short list of requirements, including GPA and volunteer-hour minimums. GI students still had to take the MCAT. Rocovich Scholars, which was open to second-year students, did not require students to take the MCAT, provided they maintained a GPA of 3.7 or higher and met several other requirements.
The program was designed to fill a need. To be a Rocovich Scholar, a student had to be a permanent resident of a rural or medically underserved area, come from a low-socioeconomic-status background or be an underrepresented minority. Davis and Barnhardt hail from areas of Cabarrus and Rowan counties, respectively, that are considered medically underserved.
VCOM graduated its first crop of DOs, as doctors of osteopathic medicine are called, at its Blacksburg, Virginia, campus in 2007. VCOM’s Carolinas Campus, in Spartanburg, South Carolina, opened in 2010. Two more campuses, in Auburn, Alabama, and Monroe, Louisiana, have opened since.
Wingate has two more Rocovich Scholars still in the program. Brooke Duggins ’20 is in her third year at the Blacksburg campus, while Amna Khan ’23 starts at the Spartanburg campus in August.
Dr. Alison Brown, a Wingate biology professor, worked with VCOM when the Rocovich Scholars program was getting established at Wingate. When they were ironing out the details, VCOM founder and board chair John Rocovich told her he wanted students from underserved areas to be able to concentrate on their schoolwork, not the MCAT and med school applications, while an undergraduate.
“If they’re academically gifted,” he said, “that’s all I want them to focus on.”
Davis came to Wingate planning to work in the medical field in some capacity. She even got her nursing-assistant certification and worked at Novant Health Matthews Medical Center as a 19-year-old. But she hadn’t really thought of medical school as an option until one of her professors, the now-retired Dr. Brian Odom, suggested it to her.
“It’s important to have professors who believe in what you can do and push you to become the best version of yourself,” she says. “I would not have taken this path had we not had the Rocovich Scholars program. I don’t think I would have gone to medical school.”
Neither Davis nor Barnhardt had heard of osteopathic medicine before learning about VCOM. They became quick converts to the discipline, which is nearly identical to allopathic medicine but with the addition of “osteopathic manipulative therapy,” a hands-on healing technique. Davis describes it as “a combination of physical therapy, massage and chiropractic skills kind of blended into its own unique subset.”
“I really found that to be an advantage going into my clinical rotations, just having that experience putting hands on patients and being comfortable performing physical exams,” Barnhardt says. “It’s a really cool tool to have in your back pocket.”
As with any medical school, VCOM was grueling, especially the first two years, with a firehose of information coming at the Wingate grads from the start.
“Right out of the gates,” Barnhardt says. “It starts and it doesn’t really stop.”
“Medical school ages you about 10 years,” Davis says. “It was a lot more challenging than I thought it was going to be, but it was definitely worth it. VCOM was a great place to get my degree, but I probably wouldn’t have gone there had it not been for the Rocovich Scholars program and going to Wingate.”
Barnhardt started an internal-medicine residency at Grand Strand Regional Hospital in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, this month. Davis is starting a family-medicine residency with Cone Health in Greensboro.
“It’s been very rewarding seeing them meet their goals,” Brown says. “We knew them as freshmen, and we knew how hard they worked to get into medical school. They’re doing what they set out to do eight years ago. They did it.”
“We have an excellent science department at Wingate,” Davis says. “I feel like I got a really good foundation for medical school. I really do credit Wingate with my success.”