Through three seminars, School of Pharmacy alumni help to attract and cultivate the next generation of Badger pharmacists
By Ben Cadigan
Noelle Austin arrived as a freshman at the University of Wisconsin–Madison knowing that she wanted to pursue pharmacy. She had three pharmacists in the family — each with a different career path. She was excited to learn more, so she signed up for the Pharmacy Exploration Seminar open to incoming freshmen.
“The seminar really solidified my interest, exposing me to the numerous paths in pharmacy and demonstrating how you can tailor your career choice to your own strengths and interests,” says Austin, now a fourth-year PharmD student at the UW–Madison School of Pharmacy.
Since 2015, the School of Pharmacy has offered three Pharmacy Exploration Seminars each year for undergraduate students like Austin to explore the profession of pharmacy, with one key feature: School of Pharmacy alumni and friends.
“Having pharmacy alumni participate in the seminars allowed me to build connections within the field, learn about their experiences in pharmacy school at UW–Madison, and hear what UW was able to do to better prepare them for their career,” says Austin.
The courses regularly invite alumni and other pharmacist speakers to share with the students what drives them and what they experience working in different areas of the pharmacy profession.
“These seminars give students the opportunity to gain exposure to opportunities in the pharmacy field, including career paths and post-graduate opportunities, learn about the application process, and begin to start building connections with current School of Pharmacy students, faculty, staff, and alumni,” says Amy Zwaska, academic program manager who organizes the seminars. “These courses just wouldn’t be possible without the insight and involvement of our fantastic alumni.”
Exploring the profession
Since the seminars made their debut seven years ago, nearly 500 students have taken them, and nearly 60 percent of enrollees have chosen to matriculate into the PharmD program.
One of the pharmacy exploration seminars, offered each fall, is organized through a campus-wide initiative called First-Year Interest Groups (FIGs), which introduce incoming freshmen to a variety of programs around campus. For students who already have a strong interest in pharmacy, the course can help them strategically explore pharmacist roles, responsibilities, and settings, says Zwaska.
“Joining the FIG was my best college decision by far,” one participant said. “As a pre-pharm student, you can’t find a better opportunity to be in the pharmacy building every week, meeting with and learning from current pharmacy students and pharmacists.”
In the spring semester, two options are offered for the seminar: one for the FIG students who want to dig deeper into pharmacy, and one for other students who are interested in pharmacy but may not have caught the first FIG seminar. During the second FIG course, students dive more deeply into pharmacy school preparation and have 30-minute virtual career conversations with practicing pharmacists, most of whom are School of Pharmacy alumni.
“There are not a lot of classes like this on campus, where a student can dive deeply into learning a lot more about pharmacy without joining the program,” says Zwaska.
Alumni as mentors
Alum Paul Konkol (PharmD ‘06), clinical pharmacist with the Lumicera Health Services specialty pharmacy, is one of the roughly 100 pharmacists — most of whom are alumni — who assist with the seminars each year, sharing his experience and perspectives on the broad array of career paths within pharmacy.
“The seminars are a recap of different areas of pharmacy that students or people interested in pharmacy may not realize are out there,” Konkol says.
In the seminars, the alumni speakers are shuffled around student small groups, who get to ask questions about the alums’ careers and daily work life, which can help students envision what to expect from their possible future profession and can expose the students to new practice settings they may not know about.
“Prior to this experience, I had thought I could either be a community or hospital pharmacist,” another student said. “The FIG exposed me to so many different directions my Doctor of Pharmacy degree could take me.”
Kayla McGowan (PharmD ‘12), clinical pharmacist with UW Health, says that her role in an ambulatory care setting is one that undergraduate students might not know about, so she likes to introduce students to her unique job.
“It’s confusing for some to understand what ambulatory care pharmacists do,” McGowan says. “Many people still think pharmacists only count pills, so I share with the students what a typical day as an ambulatory care pharmacist looks like. It’s helpful for the students to hear firsthand from different pharmacists about the unique and exciting career options within our pharmacy profession.”
As an ambulatory care pharmacist, McGowan works as part of an interdisciplinary healthcare team to help patients manage their chronic diseases.
“I love sharing my passion for the pharmacy profession and helping undergraduate students decide if a pharmacy career is the right decision and aligns with their career aspirations,” she says.
During the FIG Pharmacy Exploration Seminar that McGowan and Konkol often support, most seminar meetings feature one or more guest speakers in a particular practice setting, such as rural health or hospital pharmacy, with each speaker representing a different area of that practice. The speakers can host a panel discussion or do a round-robin, where students rotate through smaller group discussions focused on specific practice areas, such as cardiology or oncology. Some alumni from more distant areas and states are even able to join the conversations via Zoom, which gives students access to a greater variety of pharmacy careers.
“The alumni speakers were able to demonstrate how strong the connections are through the school and the benefits that alumnihood offers them as they advance their careers in pharmacy,” says Austin. “We were able to build connections for shadowing opportunities or for questions about their specific practice, and they were always willing to answer questions, even after the seminar was complete.”
The students receive an info sheet on the speakers before each seminar, which helps them ask questions that are appropriate to their career. Lindsey Leick (PharmD ’05), clinical pharmacist with UnityPoint Health – Meriter, says the seminars are a good conversational time with students who are passionate, energetic, and interested.
“The seminar gives them a little bit of a leg up in terms of getting into professional programs, even if it’s not pharmacy,” Leick says. “They get a lot more information about what healthcare looks like.”
In addition to the pharmacist and alumni speakers, faculty representing various practice and research areas also speak with students, and first- and third-year PharmD students also provide high-touch mentoring, like Austin did.
“Years after the course, I reached out to my TA [teaching assistant] from the seminar, who was then a practicing pharmacist, and she was able to review all my application pieces, answer any questions I had, and help calm my nerves the day before my pharmacy school interview,” says Austin. “I wanted to serve as a resource and share that experience with other students.”
The School of Pharmacy alumni powering these seminars find the experience fun and educational as well, reconnecting with their own job and learning from pharmacists in different areas of the profession.
“I help with the seminars because the students have good energy and I always learn something about them and about my chosen profession,” Leick says. “I get to reexamine the reasons why I do what I do. This has been a way to branch out a little bit and rub shoulders with people who work in a different setting.”
“These courses just wouldn’t be possible without the insight and involvement of our fantastic alumni.”
Konkol says his motivation to give back to the School comes from appreciation for the education he received there and a hope to help students who are where he once was — trying to find the career that is right for them.
“I always try to give back to the profession of pharmacy, even if it would be talking to people that aren’t ready to enter the workforce yet,” Konkol says. “I was in their shoes once, where I wasn’t sure of where I could see myself in the future. These seminars are opening people’s eyes to where they want to be one day.”