“The faculty hold you to the same high standards..."
Patricia Olson found an unconventional way to cure her chronic migraines: gymnastics lessons, at age 37. “I wanted to create cognitive dissonance to tell my body that I was truly healthy,” says Olson, a neuroscientist with a personal interest in the mind-body connection. “If I had a migraine at the beginning of a lesson, by the end of the hour it would be gone.” Over time Olson weaned herself off 16 prescription medications and became migraine free. Today she is enrolled in medical school with the aim of treating patients with chronic pain.
Olson first considered attending medical school in 1996 after graduating from Indiana University with a bachelor of science degree in biology. “But a PhD was my heart’s desire, so I went that route first,” says Olson. Her graduate studies at Northwestern University’s Interdepartmental Neuroscience program got off to a rocky start, however. When she struggled with her first class in neuroanatomy, Olson’s professor paired her with a classmate who aced the material. Olson not only passed the class but married her study partner. She completed her PhD in 2005 and went on to become a researcher in cognitive medicine, neurology, and pharmacology.
But Olson was forced to quit working when migraines incapacitated her. Her gymnastics cure was based on what she learned as a patient of Dr. John S. Stracks, a physician at Northwestern Medicine Osher Center for Integrated Medicine. “My pain pathways were over-activated. I had to rewire my brain.”
Freed from pain, Olson revived her long deferred dream of medical school. She applied mind-body techniques like visualization and controlled breathing to improve her MCAT scores and was soon sharing those techniques as an instructor in MCAT prep courses. But a medical school interviewer told her she needed to do more: “He said, ‘You haven’t been in a classroom for several years; you have to show us you can still read a syllabus, take exams and write papers.’”
Heeding that advice, Olson enrolled in a bioethics class taught by Mark Sheldon at Northwestern University School of Professional Studies. “It was like manna from heaven,” says Olson, who was thrilled to be back in the classroom. “You talk about intense issues and get a variety of perspectives. Some of the students were 18 years younger than I was, but they were my peers in applying to medical school.”
Olson went on to complete a specialized study post-baccalaureate certificate at SPS in medicine and society in 2014 and was admitted to Indiana University School of Medicine two weeks before her 40th birthday. “My age wasn’t an issue but an asset,” says Olson. “In the interview I was able to talk about the classes I’d been taking at Northwestern. I had spent time thinking about these topics, letting my ideas marinate. The interview became a conversation.”
His first day on the job as finance director for the Village of Calumet Park, Illinois, Kent Oliven borrowed a pry bar from the public works department to look for records in a crawl space. “There I was in my suit, underground, realizing that the numbers didn’t add up,” Oliven recalls. He discovered that a law firm working on tax increment financing had overbilled the village by a whopping $3.2 million.
Oliven’s sleuthing made the front page of the Chicago Tribune and led to the recovery of the money for the cash-strapped municipality. “We discussed business ethics in the auditing class I took at Northwestern,” says Oliven, who earned a certificate in CPA Preparation at Northwestern University School of Professional Studies in 2009. “I knew what I had to do.”
Oliven enrolled in the post-baccalaureate program as a way to advance his career in municipal government, a calling he discovered after his family moved to Palos Park and his wife spotted an ad seeking a finance director for the village of 5,000. With bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics from the University of Iowa and experience in investment banking, Oliven was well suited to the role. But after two years, he wanted to work in a larger municipality. “My dad always said to take more accounting courses, and he was right,” says Oliven. “I needed my CPA.” He determined that Northwestern would be the most efficient route to that goal.
“Deciding to leave my job and go back to school at age 39 with a wife and two kids was a tough decision,” says Oliven, “but it was an investment that paid off.” He completed the coursework in three quarters and spent every spare minute in the library preparing for the four rigorous exams that CPAs must pass to be licensed. Oliven passed all four exams on his first try — a rare feat. He was walking into the testing center for the first exam when he received the call inviting him to apply for the job in Calumet Park. In his three years there he became the village administrator, Calumet Park’s highest appointed official.
Today Oliven is the director of finance in Park Ridge, where he oversees a department of 12 and puts together the budget for the city of 37,000. He also chairs the Illinois CPA Society’s governmental accounting executive committee, where he sees more opportunities to make an impact. “I want to give people on boards, councils, and school districts better financial knowledge to oversee the people who are handling their accounts — the knowledge to ask the right questions.”
Jordan Scher makes pirouettes look effortless. A 2009 honors graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Scher double majored in anthropology and dance. Her facility for turns came in handy when she decided to take her career in a completely new direction.
“As an undergraduate I took one lab science,” says Scher. But she had always been interested in medicine, and when the California native returned home to work as a medical assistant in a plastic surgery practice, she admired the positive impact the surgeon made on his patients’ lives. “As a dancer I had been thinking about training to become a physical therapist, but learning more about the life of a doctor moved me toward medicine.”
Without a premed background, however, Scher had some catching up to do. “Learning the sciences for the first time is like learning a new language,” notes Scher. A self-described “type AAA personality,” Scher researched programs and moved to Chicago in 2010 to enroll in Northwestern University School of Professional Studies’s post-baccalaureate program in premedicine. “The faculty hold you to the same high standards that traditional undergraduates must meet,” says Scher. “Those were some of the best classes I’ve ever taken, especially Dr. [Barry] Coddens’s organic chemistry course, which truly prepared me for the MCATs.”
Evening classes gave Scher time during the day to volunteer at a community health clinic and direct fundraising for a national organization dedicated to preventing deaths caused by seizures. After completing the certificate program in 2012, Scher took a challenging job as a clinical research coordinator at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “Working in a clinical setting,” says Scher, “I see the importance of the scientific mindset I learned in class at Northwestern, the idea of starting with a problem and thinking systematically to a solution.”
Scher’s classmates in the premed program included professional athletes and English majors, but despite their diverse backgrounds, Scher says that many of them had in common a parent or sibling in medicine. “I didn’t have that,” says Scher, who will be the first person in her family to attend medical school when she enters the highly competitive East Coast school that was her top choice. “If you are like me and don’t come from a medical background, it doesn’t mean that you can’t do it. In fact, it shows that my desire to do this is truly my desire.”
As a marathon runner Rebekah Raleigh knows something about stamina. That staying power may explain the big things she’s accomplished since earning a bachelor’s degree in art history from Wesleyan University in 2001. Raleigh has it all: a huge talent for photography and years of experience as a photojournalist worldwide; a pending master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, Columbia; and a stimulating job as a multimedia specialist at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. But in 2012 she added one more star to her resume: a certificate in Advertising for Creatives from Northwestern University School of Professional Studies.
“My boss is a designer and thought the art direction program at Northwestern would help me understand the work I do,” says Raleigh, who, despite her impressive experience, had never done big commercial photo shoots. Raleigh also wanted to showcase her skill as a creative director by amassing a portfolio of her work, the capstone project of Advertising for Creatives. “Everyone in the program wanted to work in advertising,” says Raleigh, who began the cohort program in fall 2011. “You’re building a network you can call on later.”
Raleigh’s classroom was the Chicago office of global advertising giant DDB Worldwide, where students worked with associate creative directors Jonathan Richman and Alex Zamiar on the core sequence of classes. “Jonathan and Alex were patient and helped us understand the creative process with clarity,” says Raleigh. On Northwestern’s Chicago campus she took an elective course in graphic design, where she learned to use Adobe Illustrator, “a huge takeaway.” Raleigh completed the program with a portfolio that earned her the opportunity to work on a public service campaign encouraging younger voters to participate in the 2012 Presidential election. The campaign was featured in both Adweek and The Atlantic. “The program made me a more competitive candidate,” says Raleigh. “It gave me the credibility to translate my skills out of editorial. It provided an incredible segue.”
In a span of seven years Angela Kelle went from being a computer engineer without an undergraduate degree to being a physician in her first year of residency. “One thing led to another,” says Kelle. “I moved step by step.”
Kelle’s first step was to take a programming language course at SPS, which she hoped would lead to more satisfaction in her tech job. She soon realized that SPS offered many more opportunities, including not only the chance to finish the undergraduate degree she had deferred because of finances but also a premedicine post-baccalaureate program that could help her realize her lifelong dream of becoming a doctor.
Her next step was to enroll as a human biology major at SPS, where classes in immunology and biochemistry proved to be especially helpful in her later studies. At SPS Kelle shared many of her classes with students in the premedicine post-baccalaureate certificate program, which she completed as well. “The premed classes prepared me so well for medical school that I was confident there from the very beginning,” says Kelle, who graduated from Loyola Stritch School of Medicine in 2010, four years after earning her bachelor’s degree, cum laude, from Northwestern.
Another important step Kelle took while at SPS was to engage in research and to network with Northwestern-trained physicians. She says those experiences enhanced her application to medical school, and the resulting eight journal articles she coauthored based on that research proved critical to landing a residency in pediatrics at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
“Once I came to Northwestern, it was a chain reaction,” says Kelle. “I don’t know if I could have done what I dreamed of doing without the program. I still can’t imagine any university being as accessible and as good of a fit for me as Northwestern.”
Growing up in Cannes, France, home of the International Film Festival, Olivier Menager says he was influenced by American pop culture. After he earned a bachelor’s degree in business and management in France and a master’s degree in banking and finance in England, Menager was delighted to make Chicago his new home when he accepted a job as a business analyst at the Chicago office of a global brokerage service in 2006. “My heart is in the Midwest,” says Menager, “and I’m a big Chicago sports fan.”
Now a senior financial analyst and permanent U.S. resident, Menager has put down roots and looks to the future. “In France I had very little exposure to the subject of economics. It’s something I discovered about four years ago, and it’s been a revelation,” says Menager, who plans to apply to master’s programs in economics. Realizing that he needed to strengthen his academic background before applying, Menager met with an SPS academic adviser, an experience that was "tremendously helpful." Menager adds, “I bombarded her with questions. I had courses in mind that I wanted to take, but I didn’t know about the post-baccalaureate certificate programs. She proposed wrapping those courses into a customized certificate that will give me a better chance of being accepted into a graduate program.”
Menager has begun a sequence of math and economics courses — “For economics, you need to take math until it hurts” — and is pleased with the level of the classes, which he says are challenging but not overwhelming, with instructors providing clear explanations of dense material. “Enrolling in SPS was a turning point in my objective of going to graduate school,” says Menager. “No other program in Chicago comes close.”