Scholars studying to become future rural physicians honored at convocation

May 1, 2023

Eleven students studying to become physicians and practice in rural Alabama communities were recognized April 23 at a convocation for the Rural Medical Scholars Program.

The program, now in its 27th year, is operated by The University of Alabama College of Community Health Sciences and the University of Alabama at Birmingham Marnix E. Heersink School of Medicine.

The Rural Medical Scholars Program is exclusively for rural Alabama students and includes a year of study, after students receive their undergraduate degree, that leads to a master’s degree in Rural Community Health and early admission to the UAB Heersink School of Medicine.

Rural Medical Scholars spend the first two years of medical school at the main Heersink School of Medicine campus in Birmingham and then return to CCHS for their final two years of clinical education. The 11 Rural Medical Scholars recognized at the convocation begin medical school this summer.

“We’ve been blessed this year to get to know these students and to help them on their path to becoming great physicians in rural areas,” Dr. Holly McCaleb, assistant director of CCHS Rural Programs, said in welcoming remarks.

Dr. Richard Friend, dean of CCHS, gave his greeting to the class. “I want to congratulate our students for their hard work in this program,” he said. “It has been exciting to observe their progress. Thank you to our Rural Programs team who have helped to mentor and nurture these students over the past year.”

The Rural Medical Scholars Program is the culmination of a pipeline of CCHS programs that supports rural Alabama high school and college students interested in pursuing health care professions.

The pipeline also includes the Rural Community Health Scholars Program for Alabama college graduates interested in health professions. Rural Community Health Scholars complete the year of studies with the Rural Medical Scholars and receive a master’s degree in Rural Community Health. Many enter nursing, physician assistant and other allied health programs and professions.

Dr. Jim Leeper, professor emeritus with the CCHS Department of Community Medicine and Population Health and Rural Medicine clerkship director for the Rural Medical Scholars Program, presented an overview of the Rural Scholars Program, expressing that Alabama counties do not have enough doctors to provide health care. “We started the rural programs to help with this issue, starting with high school programs, such as the Rural Health Scholars and the Minority Rural Health Scholars. The programs have been quite successful as we have had 87% of students stay to practice in rural Alabama,” Leeper said.

Convocation keynote speaker Dr. Ray Stewart, assistant professor of sports medicine with CCHS and a former Rural Medical Scholar, told the students that there have been lots of changes in recent years – technology, political, social, cultural and educational changes.

“And yet there has been something that’s been constant in what we do as physicians. That constant is that we listen to people’s stories, we help them and we build relationships with them. That’s never going change,” Stewart said. “You’re going to learn a lot of things over the next four years, but that’s going to be your number one priority. All patients want to be heard and they want to tell their story. They want somebody who cares enough to listen.”

Dr. Drake Lavender, director of Rural Programs and a graduate of the first Rural Medical Scholars Program class, presented Leeper with the Distinguished Service Award for his “outstanding commitment to rural health care.”

“Tonight, we get to recognize one of our own,” Lavender said. “Dr. Leeper has been on faculty here at UA for 46 years, since 1977, and he has an impact on a tremendous number of people during his time here. He’s taught thousands of students and has acted as the calm and level-headed keeper of knowledge for our programs over the years.”

During the last few moments of the convocation, McCaleb provided a remembrance for Dr. Greg Robbins, a former Rural Medical Scholar and an alumnus of UA’s Tuscaloosa Family Medicine Residency Program, which CCHS operates.

In convocation closing remarks, Lavender congratulated the students for their excellence in the Rural Medical Scholars and Rural Community Health Scholars psrogram and encouraged them to share knowledge of the programs to others interested in medicine to help bring even more physicians to rural Alabama communities.

2022-23 Rural Medical Scholars:

2022-23 Rural Community Scholars: