If you’re considering going back to school or entering an undergraduate allied health program, why not check out Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)? Not only do the top programs among them offer all the advantages of schools with majority populations, but they also have the added bonus of being particularly dedicated to bringing diversity to their communities’ health care workforce.
As with any college search, you should look at several key factors to ensure you’re picking not just a great school, but also the school that best fits your personality, preferences and needs. That could be one advantage of choosing an HBCU: it might bring you one step closer to a school that suits your particular requirements, especially if you need extra support to help you through a tough allied health care program.
“Because these programs are so demanding and so stressful a student needs to be able to talk to someone who really understands where they are, who they are, about cultural issues, etc.,” says Gene Gary-Williams, executive director of the National Society of Allied Health. “Students know when they go to HBCUs there are lots of mentors and people who can counsel them. That takes care of a lot of issues. Plus, they are among people who are like them and understand them.”
Picking the Best Place for You
There are other factors to take into consideration as well. One of the most important decisions is deciding where you would feel comfortable living while you earn your degree. Do you want to live in an urban area such as Washington, D.C. or Houston? Then maybe Howard University or Texas Southern University (see “Among the Best”) would fit the bill. A quaint, quiet setting, on the other hand, might be a better fit for some. In that case University of Maryland Eastern Shore, whose campus is located in historic Princess Anne, might be just right. Of course, options also abound somewhere in the middle of the two extremes—many schools, both large and small, are located in mid-size cities and towns.
You should also contemplate how far you are willing to move or whether you would like to live in a particular part of the country. Although many HBCUs are located in the South, there are quite a few excellent schools located in other parts of the country, such as Charles Drew University in Los Angeles.
Next, consider the size of the college or university itself. Do you want to go to a huge heavy hitter such as Florida A&M University? Are spectator sports or your own athletic endeavors important to you? If you dream of having a famous team to root for, you may want to pursue a larger school.
On the other hand, if sharing a campus with 12,000 other students seems intimidating, a more manageable size might be for you.
Allied Health Programs and HBCUs
Once you have considered the basic questions about the kind of school you’re looking for, start your research on different types of programs offered in allied health. Clearly, if you know you want to go into a particular specialty, say, occupational therapy, you can eliminate schools that don’t have a program in that area. Otherwise, look for allied health schools that offer degrees or course tracks in several disciplines. Some common ones include physical and occupational therapy, dental hygiene, cardiopulmonary science, radiation therapy, dietetics, clinical laboratory science, health information management and public health.
Be rigorous in your review of schools and how successful their graduates are in the real world. That doesn’t just mean looking at a particular program’s pass rate on board exams, but also whether the school or department is doing a good job of keeping up with changes in very dynamic fields.
“Students should look for a program that’s going to prepare them for the workforce—one that covers technology and other information in terms of the changing workplace and also includes a research component,” advises Peggy Valentine, dean of the School of Health Sciences, Winston-Salem State University. “One of the main problems we have in allied health is that there aren’t enough professionals contributing to the body of knowledge.”
An important part of any allied health curriculum is clinical experience. Know how much time you’ll spend on clinical rotations or internships in a program and what types of partnerships a school has with other organizations and government agencies. Florida A&M University is collaborating with Harvard University to research health disparities among minorities in a program funded by the National Institutes of Health. Most schools have some sort of partnership with hospitals, nursing homes or big universities, for example, to gain access to expensive equipment or to develop clinical internship programs.
Serving the Community
Many HBCUs are particularly dedicated to not only seeing more minorities wind up in health professions, but also in helping minorities in their communities live better lives.
The College of Health Sciences at Tennessee State University has free clinics in speech pathology and dental hygiene for patients from the public. The school’s mission is so ingrained that faculty members volunteer their time to run a physical therapy clinic off campus.
“I think we have a special interest in serving our community,” says Kathleen McEnerney, dean of the College of Health Sciences at Tennessee State University. “We keep them in mind always when we are trying to recruit new students.”
When you do your research and really find out about a school, its size, its makeup and its mission, you’ll do yourself a great favor. Most of the experts and academics asked about allied health programs and HBCUs for this story said that shortages in so many of the professions have resulted in the typical student having at least one job offer before they’ve even tried on their cap and gown.
“One of the great things is that students from lower classes get into these programs and become instantly middle class.
It’s kind of a wonderful magic that happens,” says Gary-Williams. “They can make a contribution while making a very livable wage.”