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From fatigues to scrubs

November 25, 2003

Judy McElhiney is going to become a doctor! Shes been accepted to medical school. Actually, to nine medical schools. Shes bubbling with excitement.

Austin Peay and the Army are the two best things Ive done in my life, she says. Her black hair is pinned high on her head in a bun, a simple style that sets off her luminous green eyes. Her words pop and glow with her excitement. This petite woman has the energy of Hoover Dam.
November 25, 2003

Judy McElhiney is going to become a doctor! She's been accepted to medical school. Actually, to nine medical schools. She's bubbling with excitement.

“Austin Peay and the Army are the two best things I've done in my life,” she says. Her black hair is pinned high on her head in a bun, a simple style that sets off her luminous green eyes. Her words pop and glow with her excitement. This petite woman has the energy of Hoover Dam.

Educational challenges are exhilarating to McElhiney. When she graduates from APSU in May, she'll be the first in her family to earn a college degree.

As a soldier in the U.S. Army, she was Sgt. McElhiney. Today, she's a dedicated student, a loving mother to Maria, 13, and Michael, 10, and a supportive wife to Mike, her husband of 15 years. She savors each role she's played. Each served as a stepping stone toward her dream of becoming Dr. McElhiney.

When she and 39 other MD-wannabes took a practice test for the MCAT at Vanderbilt, she had the fifth highest score. Later, when she was one of 50,000 pre-med students nationwide to take the MCAT, McElhiney scored in the 85th percentile!

Subsequently, she applied to 28 medical schools and interviewed with 11: Vanderbilt University, Mayo Medical, Yale, Washington University, University of Chicago, University of Kentucky, Jefferson Medical, St. Louis University, Temple, Meharry Medical and East Tennessee State University.

Neither Yale nor Washington University notify applicants of admission until spring, but McElhiney's been accepted to nine medical schools already. And although scholarships to top med schools are rare, she's been offered full, four-year scholarships from Mayo Medical, Vanderbilt University and the University of Kentucky.

How did this woman—who was born in Kansas, grew up in Spain, served in the Army and is now a wife, mom and college seniorfind herself at this high apex so early in life? It began in 1995, when she and her husband were assigned to Fort Campbell, Ky.

In 1998 she enrolled as a freshman at the APSU Center @Fort Campbell. Shortly, she transferred to the main campus. A class on diseases, taught by Dr. Rae Hansberry, piqued her interest in medicine, so she changed her major to pre-med—and never looked back.

Now looking ahead, she has no doubt what she wants to do with her medical degree: She wants to be an academic physician so she can treat patients, teach and conduct research simultaneously. And amazingly, she also plans to obtain a master's degree in public health (MPH).

“I want to be able to advocate for my patients,” she says. “Maybe someday, I'll end up in D.C.a spokesperson for people who need medical care and can't afford it.”

For the moment, however, she's pondering which scholarship to accept. If she goes to Vanderbilt, her family won't have to relocate. To sweeten the offer, Vandy tossed in a stipend of $3,000 annually and then extended her scholarship to five years so she could pursue an MPH.

But Mayo Medical may have the edge. At Austin Peay, she's come to appreciate having small classes. The average class size at the Vanderbilt University Medical School is 120 students. At Mayo Medical, it's 42. And Mayo is ranked as the No. 2 hospital in the country.

Plus McElhiney knows Mayo Medical like the back of her hand. For the past two summers, she's conducted research there. Her last research was published in the Cancer Research Journal. For an undergraduate to be published in this respected journal is highly unusual.

McElhiney was delighted to be chosen to interview at Mayo Medical. “About 3,000 people apply to Mayo each year, and only 100 are interviewed,” she says. “From that 100, only 34 are accepted.”

Interestingly, the admissions committees at all the medical schools peppered her with questions—primarily about her academic background.

“They asked a lot about Austin Peay. They wanted to know about my classes and my professors,” she says, insinuating they were surprised she came from a small, public university in Tennessee.

“I told them this is an excellent school, that I got an excellent education here,” she says.

McElhiney takes every opportunity to tell about the personal attention she received from her APSU faculty and staff. “Someone asked me if my education was comparable to what I would have received at an Ivy-league schooland I said ‘better!' Everyone here has been wonderful.”

Dr. Ron Robertson, her pre-med adviser and associate professor of chemistry, prepared and mailed packets for her to 28 medical schools. Each packet was stuffed with letters of recommendation from her faculty.

“I can never thank them all enough,” she says, listing each faculty member carefully.

There were letters from Dr. Ron Robertson, Dr. Todd Lafrenz and Dr. Robin Reed, all in chemistry; Dr. David Snyder and Dr. Sarah Schiller, biology; Dr. Pei Xiong-Skiba, physics; Dr. Rae Hansberry, Dr. Wayne Chaffin and Dr. Rebecca Glass, all of health and human performance; and Professor of English Jim Clemmer.

She also talks about three special secretaries who became her friends—Donna Liverett in chemistry, Glenda Drum, health and human performance and Sherry Bagwell, physics.

“Those ladies were just plain great. So nice and always willing to help me out.

“And I have to mention the cleaning staff in the science building, especially Rhonda Johnson, who took time to encourage me on those long days and late nights when I was studying there. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of this support from faculty and staff.”

She recalls a time when support from her faculty and staff was invaluable to her: On Dec. 3, 2001, she received word her husband had been injured seriously. It was two days before the last day of classes for the fall semesterfinal exam timewhen she left for Washington, D.C.

Her husband had been flown to Walter Reed Hospital after losing an arm while serving with the 5th Special Forces in Afghanistan. She was with him at the hospital three months.

When she returned to APSU, the faculty worked hard to help her catch up. When she was holed up in a lab to study all day for the MCAT, they brought her snacks and lunch. At night, they brought hot cups of coffee. And they constantly offered encouraging words, a smile, a gentle pat on her shoulder as she bent over her books.

“I couldn't have done it without my professors,” she says simply.

Their influence on her will reach beyond the classroom and the lab. From them, she learned the importance of caring, of giving one-on-one attention to others.

“They nurtured me,” she says. “As a result, I think I'll be a more caring doctor.”
—Dennie Burke