PAWS Program Builds a Pipeline to Medical School

Mikella Vermaire
Mikella Vermaire was part of the first Pathways to Success class, and she is now a first-year student at the School of Medicine.

In her freshman year at the University of Missouri, Mikella Vermaire knew she wanted to become a doctor. What she didn’t know was how to reach that goal.

Her undergraduate advisor in the Department of Biology suggested she apply to join a new program called Pathways to Success (PAWS).

“I didn’t know anything that was involved with the application cycle or what would be required to get in,” said Vermaire, who is entering her first year at the MU School of Medicine. “PAWS structured those three years in a way that made it not easy — because it’s never easy to get into med school — but made it more digestible.”

PAWS is a partnership between MU’s MedOpp Advising Office and the School of Medicine and is led by Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion Laura Henderson Kelley, MD. PAWS accepts up to 10 freshman students per year. Its mission is to help underrepresented minority, first-generation or economically disadvantaged students become competitive medical school applicants.

Three of the five students in the first PAWS class were accepted into medical school, and two of them — Vermaire and Micaela Kemerling — are attending the MU School of Medicine.

“They enrolled us in courses that prepared us to take the MCAT, they got us involved in volunteering in the hospital and they had us doing mock interviews,” Vermaire said. “Every piece of the application, they helped us. I had fantastic mentors, like Dr. Henderson Kelley, who read through my entire application before I submitted it. Even when we were done with all the actual activities, they were still around to help.”

The early success of the program inspired Dean Steven Zweig, MD, to expand its scope in the spring of 2021. Initially, PAWS graduates who met the academic standards were guaranteed an interview with the MU School of Medicine. Now, those students are guaranteed acceptance. It’s the same system, with the same standards, as the Bryant Scholars Pre-Admissions Program, which has helped the School of Medicine recruit students from rural areas for decades.

“Learning the lessons from the Rural Scholars program, where we have a preadmissions program that starts in undergraduate college and continues through medical school, we realized this is a great opportunity to do the same thing with a different population of students,” Zweig said. “To be able to partner with the University of Missouri on this makes a lot of sense. These are students who have already been here in Columbia, they have a greater likelihood of not only feeling supported here, because this is their environment, but also are more likely to go on to be physicians in our state and provide services for people who might not have had them otherwise.”

Vermaire is a great example of a student who belonged in medical school and got there with the help of PAWS.

“Mikella is bright, enthusiastic and passionate about her pursuit of medicine but really needed resources and support to make her dream a reality,” Henderson Kelley said. “PAWS was able to provide that for her, and she proved what we knew all along — she will be an incredible addition to the physician workforce.”