Eight pioneers brought change to Wichita campus

April 08, 2015

By Joe Stumpe

The Great Eight

The first group of students to complete all four years of medical school on the KU School of Medicine-Wichita campus didn't run much risk of getting lost in the crowd.

The entire class could fit around a conference table.

That first-ever first-year class totaled a whopping eight students: Matthew Blue, Caitlin Chiles, Jordan Groskurth, Kyle Rowe, Stephanie Shields, Ashley Venegas, Jacob Wallace, and Whitney Weixelman.

They started on the Wichita campus in the fall of 2011. Prior to that time, Wichita had only served third- and fourth-year students who had started their medical education on KU's Kansas City campus.

Looking back, several members of the octet of pioneers now admit to wondering how it would turn out.

"I think anyone would have had worries and reservations," Weixelman said. "Being the first of anything is scary." But, she's quick to add, "The risk really paid off. I couldn't have had a better experience."

School's expansion was a critical milestone

The success of the Wichita campus is evidenced by its expansion. It has more than tripled the number of students it currently admits -- 28 in both 2013 and 2014 - and plans additional growth in the future.

Some of the credit for that goes to the first four-year class, say members of the school's faculty and administration.

"We wanted to start with a small group of students and get the bugs worked out before we expanded," Dr. Garold Minns, dean of the Wichita campus, said. "We were very interested in student feedback. We listened to them very closely."

"They're a nice bunch of people -- bright, just a lot fun," said Dr. Thomas Kluzak, chair of the school's pathology department. "It was interesting to see how they gelled as a group and supported each other. Medical school takes a lot out of you. It looks like they've held up just fine."

All are on schedule to graduate in May, 2015.

Hometown location was key

For these charter students, the KU School of Medicine-Wichita campus' initial appeal was geographical. Most call the Wichita area home, although several had left to earn their undergraduate degrees.

Shields, an Andale native, had just graduated from K-State along with her husband, who'd been offered a job in Wichita. "I didn't want to be a two-city couple" while attending medical school, she said.

Wallace had been working as an engineer in Wichita's aviation industry for six years when he decided to pursue a medical career. "My wife was working, and we weren't sure if we would have to go to Kansas City. The opportunity to stay in Wichita was a huge blessing. My wife kept her job, and we stayed near our families."

Weixelman and Groskurth were recent college graduates who didn't mind saving money by living with their parents while attending school in Wichita. Venegas is a single mom and homeowner who didn't relish the thought of uprooting her life and starting over in a strange city.

Student-focused, community-based

What the students found when they enrolled was a ready-made study group and a school that seemed to go out of its way to make sure they had everything they needed for success.

There was, for example, the episode of the chairs. Wallace seems almost embarrassed recalling the incident, which started when Dr. Minns popped in to a classroom to ask the then-freshmen how they were doing.

"We made some comment about not liking the chairs we were sitting in, we said that the ones downstairs were more comfortable," Wallace recalls. "About 15 minutes later, up he comes, wheeling eight of the chairs from downstairs to us. What dean of a medical school on this planet would do that? He's the only one."

Said Minns, "In hindsight, they were pretty crummy chairs."

Students felt Minns would do whatever it took to take care of them, Wallace said.

That feeling also extended to the rest of the school's personnel. After tests, Wallace said he would often end up chatting with Ruth Friesen, who works in the medical education department. "Her office was right across from our little classroom," he said. "Her attitude and her heart for us were wonderful. I'd end up spending time with her, just chatting. She's a fun person."

Drs. Kluzak, Scott Moser and John Dorsch are among the faculty students worked closely with during the first two years. Several students said the KU School of Medicine-Wichita's reputation as a community-based medical school was another draw to the campus.

Rowe noted that between his first and second year, he wanted to see what an oncologist's practice was like. "The school staff just called one up, and I got to go spend a month with him," Rowe said. "Wesley Medical Center and Via Christi Health feel very integrated with the medical school. They cooperate in all kinds of ways. There are so many physicians in town that have a close relationship with the school and welcome students into their practice for training."

Technology - combined with a personal touch

The 2011 expansion on the KU School of Medicine-Wichita campus happened without increased funding to hire additional faculty. Lectures for first- and second-year students were delivered live to a lecture hall via televideo, broadcast from instructors on the Kansas City campus.

But Wichita students say they, like medical students elsewhere, rely on laptop computers and the Internet to access lectures on their own schedule anyway. And plenty of in-person contact with faculty takes place in their small group sessions.

"I don't think any medical students in the country have had as much individualized attention as we have," Weixelman said.

"It was nice to be part of such a small group," Blue said. "We got some special attention here."

Groskurth, class president for the graduating class, shares his experience with local high school and college students who are considering studying medicine.

Chiles, a member of the school's Student Ambassador group, is also happy to sing the praises of her soon-to-be alma mater. "It went pretty smooth," she said of starting her medical education here. "Wichita's a great community."

"A tight-knit group"

The first eight four-year students didn't just choose Wichita -- it chose them, too, from a larger pool of applicants. "We selected eight who we thought would come together as a group," Minns said. "I think we got very lucky. They did bond very well. They worked together as a team."

They also became friends, going out to eat after big tests, watching football games together and helping each other with the demands of medical school when possible.

Wallace says Chiles is known for whipping up baked treats for her classmates' birthdays and other get-togethers. He recalled that Weixelman, during a strenuous period of study, flew to Washington, D.C., to donate bone marrow to a 1-year-old boy. "She was just always volunteering to do stuff like that." Venegas became involved in the fight to save the life of a young girl with a rare brain tumor.

In their third and fourth years, the original eight were joined by dozens of students from Kansas City. They have since spent most of their time doing clinical rotations off-campus, so they haven't seen as much of each other. But they still consider one another good friends who have been through a unique experience together.

Two have become about as close as you can get: Rowe and Weixelman got engaged last summer.

"Oh definitely, we're a tight-knit group," Chiles said. "We see each other when we can."

Venegas concurred. "We had a great group of people. If you're only going to have seven classmates, this was the group to have."

KU School of Medicine-Wichita
Last modified: Oct 10, 2016
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