Supporting Students in Graduate Health Education

April 18, 2022
  • AACRAO Annual Meeting
  • Graduate and Professional Schools
Group of medical students examining a graph.

By Heather Zimar, Managing Editor for AACRAO's College and University Journal and SEM Quarterly.

Graduate students in medical fields face unique challenges, said Neil Birt, Assistant Director of Learning Skills & Assessment at Western University of Health Sciences. These students are older and often have more responsibilities than undergraduate students. They have previous work experience and financial challenges such as debt from an undergraduate degree, and are not necessarily coming from a traditional medical background. In addition, these students often experience imposter syndrome, as graduate programs can be more challenging than undergraduate programs. Many also face internal and external pressures; they want to do well themselves but are also representing family and community.

In light of these challenges, Birt noted, many graduate students realize they need to change how they approach their graduate work. They get really attached to these ideas, he said. They get confused and are not able to let those things go. They get really overwhelmed. This creates the context for what we need to do in our office.

At the Western University of Health Sciences, the LEAD (Learning Enhancement & Academic Development) Office focuses on three areas:

  • Emotional intelligence including self-awareness, motivation, and self-regulation
  • Brain Functions (what the brain does to help support learning) 
  • Creating space from the issue: broadening perspective and reframing the experience as a challenge

“One of the most powerful things we can do is to have students notice,” Birt said. “We need to teach them to check in with themselves.”

The LEAD Office is located in University Student Affairs, has five learning skills specialists and an office manager, and supports success at the university level. They offer several programs to assist graduate health students, including: 

  • Summer Preparedness and Readiness Course (SPaRC): a multi-week intro to the university for incoming and repeating students 
  • One-on-one academic counseling
  • Peer tutoring through the LEAD Tutoring Assistance Program (TAP) 
  • Workshops upon requests by programs to assist students in special areas such as the first-year learning curve, writing, and wellbeing

“Wellbeing, Birt added, is interwoven with our other services as well as special events.” This includes social, body, mind, and self wellness. 

From July 2021 to February 2022, the LEAD office received 823 student visits and held 2,265 sessions. About 83 percent of students sought out LEAD services independently, and nearly 93 percent reported that they found LEAD counseling useful.

“We have to help support [students] forever,” Birt said. 

WesternU plans to improve many aspects of its services in the future, including ongoing enhancements to data collection and humanistic interpretation of success; establishing clear end goals and expectations with various programs; changing student views; improving the performance of pandemic-inspired changes, and operating under an academic mission versus business mission. 


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