Ten years ago, the University of Minnesota Rochester accepted its first class of freshmen, bringing to fruition a project and a community dream decades in the making.
These students came to be known variously as the "pioneers" or "guinea pigs," because they were the first. A decade later, the PB asks: Where are they now? And what have they done with their lives?
Did UMR prepare them for health care careers — to become physicians and nurses, chiropractors and physician assistants, researchers and health policy analysts — which was the mission of the new, four-year UMR? And how do they view their time at UMR?
It would be easy to see that inaugural class as risk-takers. But that's not exactly how many of them see it.
Here, after all, was a group of students taking a leap into the relative unknown. Instead of hoary, ivy-covered buildings, these students chose a school made almost from scratch. Classes were held in a converted shopping mall in downtown Rochester. Instead of marching bands and football games, they got ballroom dancing.
Evan Doyle belonged to that inaugural 2009 class. Today, Doyle lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, and works in public health as a country support manager for a global HIV prevention program.
When he looks back on his time at UMR, he doesn't feel like he missed out on anything that a traditional college had to offer. Having never been to college before arriving at UMR, he had nothing to compare it to.
"It's kind of like you don't know what you don't know," he said.
Plus, Doyle saw UMR as an opportunity.
"We were really given an opportunity to shape our educational experience in a way that other people our age weren't able to," Doyle said. "So I never thought about, 'Wow, this is weird. This is a shopping mall.'"
Doyle said his four years at UMR were "foundational" in setting his career path. Although he had started out wanting to be a physician, he shifted gears his senior year and ended up going into public health. Today, he helps African nations fight the HIV virus.
"The curriculum gave me a strong enough base to be adaptable to other areas in health," Doyle said.
Jessica Sawinski (then Gasoigne) is in her second year as a family medicine resident at Park Nicollet Health Services in the Twin Cities. She recalls touring the renovated mall downtown more than a decade ago and thinking to herself, "Is this is a bad idea, signing up for a school that hasn't ever had students here before?"
But her fears were assuaged by the fact that, however new, the school was a U of M institution, which to her gave it a stamp of quality. The school was also close to her Zumbro Falls home. And its focus on the health sciences also fit with her plans to become a physician.
"The degree itself — bachelor of health sciences — was so ideal and perfect-sounding, at least for what I wanted to go into," Sawinski said.
That inaugural class, which arrived at UMR in 2009, wasn't a big class. It started out with 57 students and, by the time they graduated four years later, it had been whittled to 29 students.
Of those 29 UMR graduates in the school's bachelor of science in health sciences, all but one works in health care today.
Sawinski estimates that as many as 75 percent of that first class arrived at UMR wanting to be physicians. By graduation, only 5 percent to 10 percent ended up on that track.
Some students transferred. But those who remained found the school's health care focus provided a foundation and a flexibility to pursue an array of health care fields.
That first class also offers a benchmark for the changes and growth that have unfolded during the last decade. The inaugural class was overwhelmingly white, with only 5 percent students of color. Compare that with the 2019 class, which is 34 percent minority and in line with the state's racial composition.
A decade ago, UMR served 426 students overall, when including those in partnership programs and other students taking classes. Today, that total is twice as large, at 859 students.
Molly Olson, UMR assistant director of marketing, worked to recruit that first class of students as an admission representative. Olson said the school is proud of all of its students, but that first class will always occupy a special place in the school's history.
"They are the face of UMR in a lot of ways," Olson said. "There is a sense of pride for that first class and to follow them as they grow."
Ellie Linscheid, Chiropractor, Madison, Wis.
Ellie Linscheid went to chiropractor school after graduating from the University of Minnesota Rochester in 2013.
Through most of her college career at UMR, she had her heart set on being a physician assistant. But in her senior year, she changed her mind and applied to chiropractor school.
Though it was a last-minute change, Linscheid didn't have to take additional courses and spend more money on her education. UMR's health science focus equipped her with skills that proved adaptable to different health fields.
"They set you up to be able to go into essentially any career or school in the medical field," she said.
Three years later, Linscheid graduated from the National University of Health Science in Lombard, Ill. Today she works as a chiropractor in Madison, Wis., with a particular focus on pregnant women, children and infants.
As a member of UMR's first graduating class, Linscheid has fond memories of her time at UMR and belonging to its first freshman class.
"I loved my time there," Linscheid said. "UMR was kind of a perfect fit for me. The classes were small, and you got to know your classmates really well, as well as the professors."
The course load at chiropractor school was heavy, Linscheid said, but she felt prepared for the program's rigors.
"I think UMR teaches you how to study and how to be a good student," she said. "I felt more than prepared, in that I already knew how to study, more so than my classmates, because of UMR."
Hannah Salk, physician, Duluth Residency Program.
Hannah Salk is physician halfway through her residency training in family medicine.
Salk sees a range of patients, from newborn infants to the elderly. The scope of her responsibilities varies from day to day.
Salk said one of her fondest, earliest memories of UMR is the day she arrived at the school. That's when she met her best friend. A shy student, Salk wasn't sure how to negotiate the city's skyway system, so she asked her new friend if she wanted to walk to class together.
Salk said it was clear at times in those first years that UMR faculty members were experimenting with new teaching methods. But it didn't strike her as foreign or strange, because she had nothing to compare it to. What stood out for her were the small classroom settings and how problems were discussed and solved in small groups.
It wasn't until she went to medical school, where teaching was more lecture-based, that she came to appreciate how different her education was at UMR.
Salk said she doesn't hesitate to recommend the school to others. But she cautions that UMR is for a certain type of student, one who has already made up their mind about going in a science field.
"I think that's the No. 1 reason why our class became significantly smaller than when we started," Salk said about her class, which went from 57 to 29 in the course of those four years. "There were a lot of people who changed their minds."
She said UMR helped her focus on life after college.
"I think it's a great school for people who are especially mature and looking into a (health care) profession," Salk said.
Evan Doyle, country support manager for a global HIV prevention program, Johannesburg, South Africa.
Today, Evan Doyle works in public health for an HIV prevention program in Johannesburg, South Africa. He calls it his dream job. But it wasn't how he imagined life unfolding when he arrived at UMR.
His job today is to work with governments across Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia to ensure access to pre-exposure prophylaxis — a pill, essentially — that prevents HIV.
"It marries my interest in policy and having a widespread impact on a population with my interest in data and evidence-based policymaking," he said.
But when he arrived at UMR in 2009, his heart was set on going to medical school and becoming a physician. By his senior year, he'd changed his mind.
"That was a bit of a stressful experience. I think my parents weren't happy either," he said.
But UMR's curriculum gave him a strong enough base that it allowed him to shift gears and go into public health.
"They make an intentional effort to integrate topic areas where possible and make connections across disciplines," Doyle said. "That was a unique perspective for me. I think that really served me well."
Doyle said if there is one way his education at UMR could have been improved, he wishes he had been exposed to classes that "didn't always intersect with health." Doyle works with governments. And there are a range of skills and disciplines that feed into national policymaking.
"I don't think that has held me back, by any means," Doyle said. "But it is more out of intellectual curiosity that I wish I had taken an Economics 101 course."
Doyle says he worked for a research company for two years after graduating from UMR, then went to graduate school in London. He was hired by an organization to work in Africa and has been there for the past three years.
Doyle recalls working his butt off at UMR.
"Because it was such an intensive program, especially in the first couple of years when we were trying to figure out what the curriculum would be, we were studying nonstop," he said.