Monthly Archives: February 2023

Leveraging Alumni to Engage Undergraduates

One of the things that I love about Buena Vista University (BVU), the small, liberal-arts school that I teach at, is the ability to form deep, long-lasting connections with students. As our most recent NSSE data suggests, BVU forms meaningful student-faculty and student-academic advisor connections. For example, the ‘Quality of Interactions Engagement’ indicator revealed that 63 % of our first years and 78 % of our seniors had ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’ interactions with academic advisors and 73 % of our first years and 63 % of our seniors had ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’ interactions with faculty. These connections are maintained as students move on to graduate and professional schools and into the working world. BVU’s School of Science has done an amazing job at maintaining these connections and continually engaging alumni.

The most common type of alumni engagement we have are internships and shadowing opportunities. As students explore the various careers available to them, we leverage our alumni as our first point of contact. For example, if a student is deciding whether they want to go into physical therapy or occupational therapy, we can have them shadow a BVU alum that works at the local sports rehabilitation and physical therapy clinic.

Stethoscope on wooden health .background concept.

BVU alumni have also created their own internship experiences for current students. Several local alumni physicians partnered with BVU to create a three-week internship experience known as the Undergraduate Rural Medial Education and Development (URMED) program. The goal of this partnership is to provide students with hands-on learning and encourage them to pursue careers in rural medicine upon completion of their professional training. Over the course of three weeks, students shadow various rural physicians, most of which are BVU alumni, in disciplines including family medicine, obstetrics, general surgery, orthopedic surgery and more. This internship has benefitted both the students and the hospitals who participate in the program. Students get an in-depth, firsthand experience in rural medicine, while the hospitals form connections with young, talented future physicians. In the 15 years that URMED has been in existence, 100% of the students who participated in the program (2 – 3 students per year) have been accepted to medical school or the professional program of their choice, such as physician assistant school. I know that statistic seems hard to believe but I promise you it is accurate. Many of those participants are actively practicing in rural medicine, with several of them practicing here in Storm Lake. URMED works, and it’s all thanks to the dedication from BVU alumni wanting to give back to BVU and their community.

These internship and shadowing experiences, either part of URMED or outside of it, creates relationships between the alumni and the students that allows the students to be able to get letters of recommendation from these individuals. Outside of these letters of recommendation, our alumni also help our students with the application process to graduate and professional schools via engaging students in various types of mock interviews. Several alumni came back to simulate one-on-one, back-to-back interviews with our students. We’ve had other alumni participate in a group panel to simulate group interviews that are common for graduate school. We’ve even had alumni host virtual mock interviews to simulate the online format that many graduate and professional schools have been utilizing. More recently we have had an alum host a case study-based interview. The alum was a trained by her medical school to carry out the case-study portion of the medical school interview and used this knowledge to walk our students through a case study. This alum provided the students with information on what medical schools are looking for as well as dos and don’ts of the case-study portion of the interview.

In addition to facilitating internships and assistance with the application process, our alumni provide endless advice to our students. About once a month, we bring an alum to campus to have dinner with the students. These casual gatherings over tacos allow students to ask intimate questions about the alum’s profession, what steps they took to get where they are, how well BVU prepared them for the next level, and so much more. Other times, our alumni will also serve on panels. These panels are aimed at a variety of audiences, including prospective students, freshman and sophomores trying to figure out their life path, as well as upperclassman looking to graduate. Whatever the audience, the alumni offer up advice and words of wisdom to help guide students on their journeys.

Last, but not least, my personal favorite ways to engage alumni in the classroom is in my upper-level human anatomy class. In this class, we have Clinical Evenings in the cadaver lab. After learning about a certain unit, an alum walks the students through a mock clinical procedure based on the lecture content. For example, we have a BVU alum who is an orthopedic surgeon. At the end of the lower limb unit, this alum came to lab and walked students through how to repair a femur fracture. With the alum’s instructions and guidance, the students placed a plate on the femur fracture, running all the drills, guides, and screws through the whole procedure. The alum will quiz the students on the anatomy and physiology of the area as they are working through the procedure to give application to what the students are learning about in lecture. Another example occurs during the pelvic unit, in which one of our alums reviews female pelvic anatomy before teaching students how to implant intrauterine devices into papayas. Both the students and alumni have a blast working together in the hands-on learning environment.

As a full-time teaching faculty, students are my passion. I love helping students expand their views and knowledge. I love pushing students to continually improve and to reach their goals, all while supporting them during the process. I wouldn’t be able to serve my students quite as well if it weren’t for our generous alumni. I want to thank everyone reading this who has given back to their alma mater in some way, shape, or form to help students. Your time and knowledge are indispensable to the students, and while it may not always seem like it, you’ve impacted student lives more than you know.

Dr. Sarah Schlichte is an Assistant Professor of Biomedical Sciences at Buena Vista University (BVU) in Storm Lake, Iowa. She began teaching at BVU, her alma mater, after finishing her PhD at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Integrative Physiology and Molecular Medicine in 2021. Her teaching emphasis is general biology, human physiology, human anatomy, and neuroscience for Life Science majors. She also enjoys teaching general biology to non-majors as well.
This semester, work on building trust with your students

As you begin your semester, you should be thinking about how trust matters in your classroom, and how to build it. Trust in an academic setting may be defined as “a perception that the instructor understands the challenges facing students as they progress through the course, accepts students for who they are, and cares about the educational welfare of students” (1). While your own definition may differ slightly, it likely will contain a description of a classroom dynamic that most instructors will find worth pursuing.

Is “trust” an important factor in learning outcomes in STEM classrooms? In a word, yes. Research from Wang et al. suggests that high degrees of trust in classrooms with high levels of evidence-based teaching practices was predictive of student buy-in and commitment, which in turn was positively associated with a student’s final course grade and persistence in science (2).

If trust is a critical part of your inclusive learning environment, how do you know whether your classroom is a high-trust one? One way is by surveying your students early on in the semester – which in itself is an opportunity to build trust with your students. Fortunately, relatively simple surveys for assessing inclusive learning and trust are readily available (see Ref. 1; supplemental materials). If you are already taking the temperature of your classroom via early-semester anonymous student surveys, consider asking your students whether they feel understood, accepted, and cared for – in other words, whether you have their trust.

What can you do if you realize that your commitment to an inclusive learning environment is not being reflected by high levels of trust? One recommendation is to consider various aspects of your course structure and consider a) whether they benefit students, and b) whether students realize that this is the case.

There are many ways to consider course design, though you may find it helpful to consider three distinct components of your learning environment:

Content and Pedagogy: Are my expectations realistic? Do I provide clarity, transparency, and opportunity to practice and reflect on learning progress?

Assessment structure: Do I assess early and frequently? Do I use criterion-reference assessments? Is there appropriate flexibility in how the grade is being determined? Do I offer opportunity for practice and revision, if appropriate?

Class climate: What am I doing to make sure students understand I am in their corner? Do I obtain anonymous student feedback? Do I engage with students in discussing the feedback I received?

If this sounds like too tall a task, fear not: Even small changes in your course can lead to meaningful improvements. And fortunately, there is no need to re-invent the wheel: The new APS Center for Physiology Education offers a wealth of information and is frequently updated with new materials. As you reconsider your course with a renewed focus on trust, you are sure to find a wealth of peer-reviewed and -tested resources to guide you in your ongoing growth as a teacher.


  1. Cavanagh AJ, Chen X, Bathgate M, Frederick J, Hanauer DI, Graham MJ. Trust, Growth Mindset, and Student Commitment to Active Learning in a College Science Course. CBE—Life Sci Educ 17: ar10, 2018. doi: 10.1187/cbe.17-06-0107.
  2. Wang C, Cavanagh AJ, Bauer M, Reeves PM, Gill JC, Chen X, Hanauer DI, Graham MJ. A Framework of College Student Buy-in to Evidence-Based Teaching Practices in STEM: The Roles of Trust and Growth Mindset. CBE—Life Sci Educ 20: ar54, 2021. doi: 10.1187/cbe.20-08-0185.
Josef Brandauer is an Associate Professor of Health Sciences at Gettysburg College, where he also directs the Johnson Center for Creative Teaching and Learning. Brandauer’s research focuses on mitochondrial biology, and how inclusive pedagogy results in student persistence and success.