By | February 18, 2009 12:00 am

Orlando Sentinel, Feb. 18, 2009 — Mailan Nguyen chose a career in medicine after her dad had a heart attack, sparking her ambition to help others.

As a kid, Romeo Joseph fell in love with science. Going to medical school seems natural to him.

Samih El-Akkad is drawn to medicine “by my desire to help people.”

Their “Why I want to be a doctor” stories and good grades, rigorous studies and varied life experiences put these three college seniors from across the country among the 250 finalists for the 40 spots — and a free medical education — in the University of Central Florida College of Medicine’s first class.

The school is interviewing finalists in groups of about a dozen weekly during daylong sessions that include campus tours, up-close looks at cutting-edge surgical technology and frank talk about money, the rigors of 60- to 80-hour school weeks and getting help if it all becomes too much.

Now the search for the first class is in overdrive because the application period is over and a May 15 selection deadline is looming. Classes begin Aug. 3.

Among the finalists are soon-to-be graduates of colleges and universities across the country, including those at the top of the annual U.S. News & World Report rankings.

Trading Interviews

The goal of the daylong exercise is to help the finalists figure out whether UCF is the right school for them.

“We’ll be interviewing you, but you’ll be interviewing us, too,” Randolph Manning, dean of student affairs, told a group of finalists that included Nguyen, Joseph, El-Akkad and eight others recently.

Typically, finalists arrive for their interviews looking anxious and a bit intimidated, said Robert L. “REL” Larkin, the school’s admissions director, who previously did the same job at the University of South Florida’s medical school. That was the case recently as finalists seated around a conference table sipped coffee and poked at muffins and didn’t ask a lot of questions as the dean, faculty and staff members described what the college has to offer.

Then came the interviews, two individual half-hour sessions with health professionals from the community. The interviewers’ notes on student responses to their open-ended questions will become part of the voluminous application files that will help the 10-member selection committee decide whether finalists are in.

“I feel like we should get T-shirts or something saying, ‘We survived!’ ” a grinning Vanessa Newton, 21, a senior at Vanderbilt University, said as she emerged from her second interview.

Next came a van ride to Florida Hospital Celebration where, immediately after lunch, the finalists watched on monitors as a doctor performed endoscopic surgery with the aid of a robot equipped with a video camera. The hospital is one of several where UCF medical-school students will receive some training.

Students got a chance to jump on some sophisticated electronic training devices that sharpen skills in delicate cuts and stitches before heading back to campus.

Students said they were impressed by what they saw that day.

“When it comes to technology, this is at the top,” said Joseph, 23, of Miami, a first-generation American of Haitian descent attending Florida Atlantic University and interviewing at several Florida medical schools.

Much will be asked of the first class, officials said. They will help work out kinks in the program, set up student government and interest organizations and help set the school’s tone for students yet to come.

Full-ride Scholarships

Deborah German, the medical school’s dean, wanted to ensure money wasn’t an obstacle for the first class. One of her first projects after becoming dean two years ago was to launch a campaign to raise more than $6 million for the full-ride scholarships.

No other new U.S. medical school has given its first class full-ride scholarships, created as an incentive for top-ranked students to enroll in an untested program.

The scholarships pay for tuition and some living expenses and are valued at $160,000 each over four years. Living expenses are part of the scholarship package because students won’t have time to hold outside jobs. They were urged to pay off credit-card debt and told they would get help with financial planning.

El-Akkad, 21, who attends Arizona State University, said the free education was not a major factor in his decision to apply to UCF.

“I would really like to come here because it’s a new school, trying new things,” he said. “I also like their emphasis on student success.”

Finalists were told to expect a telephone call within two weeks. Larkin promised phone calls instead of the dry form letters sent by many medical schools.

Those invited to attend UCF get two weeks to accept or decline.

Top students “can collect acceptances like playing cards,” Larkin said.

Rely on Instincts

The finalists were told more than once that UCF will give them a hands-on medical education that will benefit from the university’s already established biomedical science, optics and photonics and modeling and simulation programs. The “medical city” springing up around the permanent medical-school building will provide many research opportunities, officials said.

But even with all of that, students choose a medical school for many different reasons, Larkin said. Some may have family obligations that make the school closest to home the best choice, he said. Students also need to consider whether their chosen school’s mission, be it rural medicine or research, matches their ambitions.

In the end, students have to rely on their gut instincts, German said. If they get an offer and a twinge of doubt remains, she told finalists, “Don’t say yes.”

See how the school takes shape.

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