When Jacob Maruna decided he wanted to go to graduate school to become a physician assistant, he figured he could take a few courses, fill out applications, and he’d be able to start in a couple of years.

He quickly discovered it wasn’t that simple.

“I thought I had developed a great process of what I needed to do,” said Maruna, a clinical research coordinator at the Yawkey Center for Outpatient Care at Massachusetts General Hospital.  “It was a good thing Gail helped me.”

“Gail” is Dr. Gail Samdperil, a long-time academic advisor and former associate dean at Sacred Heart University. She launched a pilot project this summer to assist students in the MGH Institute’s Online Prerequisites for the Health Sciences program navigate their way through the graduate school application labyrinth. The brainchild of Dr. Kim Mace, director of the prerequisites program, the free resource has proven to be quite popular for dozens of students enrolled in the prerequisite courses needed to pursue an advanced healthcare degree.

“The day we announced I was available to help students, I had four requests,” said Samdperil, who developed and implemented programs targeting student success and student engagement while at Sacred Heart and where she previously met Mace. “Kim and I weren’t even sure we’d have four for the entire semester, so it certainly showed that there was a need.”

She noted that many students are several years removed from receiving their last degree, with work and life now taking up most of their time. Add two or three online courses a semester to the mix, and it’s a major juggling act. Samdperil’s job is to give them a roadmap to follow.  “Most of them know what they need to do but had questions about the application system or the need for clinical experience and how they would get that,” Samdperil said. “I’m here to help them with their application as a whole.” 

For Maruna, that meant discussing a timeline of when to complete tasks such as getting letters of recommendation, certifications, volunteer experience, clinical exposure and having him focus on strengths when writing his personal statement. “She was very helpful in that my statement highlights my clinical experiences to make my application stand out,” said Maruna, who plans to begin school in 2024 after logging the required 1,000 hours of direct-patient care needed to begin a PA program.

Samdperil said that while most healthcare programs do not require that volume of care experience, the coronavirus pandemic has prompted many hospitals to curtail volunteer opportunities that are especially important for students with liberal arts degrees who may not have jobs in which they can get clinical hours. “It’s best for all students to have clinical exposure and they’re just not sure how to go about getting that because of Covid,” she said. “It has created a challenge.”

While the prerequisite courses can be used to apply to any graduate program, including medical school, Samdperil said all the students with whom she has met intend to apply to the Institute. In additional to physician assistant studies, the IHP has direct-entry degrees programs in genetic counseling, nursing, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech-language pathology to which people with a bachelor’s degree in any field can apply.

Take Madi Lavigne, a coordinator in the oncology department at Lahey Clinic in Burlington. She initially heard about the IHP while working with several nurse practitioners who graduated from the school’s Master of Science in Nursing program. “I hadn’t even known that you could become a nurse practitioner without being a nurse, so applying to the Institute is at the top of my list,” said the 2021 Colby College chemistry graduate.

It was while taking her first class this summer that she began to feel a bit overwhelmed, so she reached out to Samdperil for advice. “Gail said the first thing I needed to do was take the GRE this fall and then go from there,” said Lavigne, who hopes to start an NP program in the fall of 2023. “There’s a lot of moving parts so having someone who could talk me through things has been great.”