On- and Off-Campus Experiences Help Senior Student Find Her Calling
Caroline McAllister had never been out of the country.
In fact, she had never been on a plane. Or in an airport.
But once she came to Allegheny, that all changed.
In January 2015, McAllister, a biology major and economics minor, participated in a study-away trip to Australia. Allegheny’s International Education Office, through the Allegheny Gateway, coordinated the experience. She also received a study-away scholarship through the Gateway.
“I decided to step out of my comfort zone,” says McAllister, who grew up on a farm in rural Upper Burrell Township, Pa. “I loved flying for the first time. Now I have the travel bug. I want to go back.”
During the five months she spent overseas, McAllister, who is interested in becoming a primary care physician in a rural area, studied at James Cook University in Australia, where she took classes such as marine biology and Indigenous studies. In addition to completing coursework, she also volunteered in the children’s ward at a local hospital.
“This experience allowed me to be in a hospital setting and talk with children and families,” McAllister says. “I also learned about universal health care. I’d like to bring certain aspects of that to the United States when I’m treating patients someday.”
The Gateway not only assisted McAllister with studying in Australia, but also with a shadowing opportunity she did with Dr. Christine Herb ’03. This experience, called the EL (Experiential Learning) Health Care Shadowing Program, allows students interested in health care careers to do a three-week intensive shadowing experience with an Allegheny alumnus, alumna, or friend. The program is coordinated through the Pre-Professional Advising Office, part of the Allegheny Gateway.
McAllister shadowed Dr. Herb at her practice in Pittsburgh, in nursing homes where she visits patients, and for one week at Allegheny General Hospital. The program, she says, taught her how to approach difficult situations, how important communication is in health care, and how to be firm but compassionate when speaking with patients and families.
“When I was shadowing Dr. Herb, one of her patients had terminal cancer, and she had to speak to the family,” McAllister says. “The family didn’t understand, so Dr. Herb took them aside and explained the different treatment processes and what she suggested they do. I was in awe at how much knowledge she had and at how she was very straightforward yet empathetic. That really stood out to me.”
“Being one person, you can’t have a huge impact to change the world. But I think that as a whole, we can create change, be it in health care or elsewhere.”
The opportunity also solidified McAllister’s desire to pursue rural health care.
“Growing up on a farm, I have an interest to stay in the country,” says McAllister, who also serves as an EMT in her hometown during breaks and holidays. “Since people in the country often don’t have access to hospitals or higher levels of health care, they tend to go to their primary care physician before traveling to the city for treatment. As a result, I think you get to see different aspects of health care in rural areas. You get to be a little more hands-on.”
In addition to these valuable experiences, McAllister also participated in a research project with Assistant Professor of Biology Matt Venesky and a team of students last fall. McAllister and her peers helped Dr. Venesky study the feeding habits of salamanders.
At Allegheny, research like this takes place through the Office of Undergraduate Research, Scholarship, and Creative Activities (URSCA), also part of the Gateway.
“Being able to conduct significant, meaningful research as an undergraduate allowed me to collaborate with a professor and other students to write a paper that will be published in a professional journal this year,” she says.
“All of these experiences have informed the way I will approach medicine when I become a physician,” McAllister adds. “I also learned that for me, helping people is a passion. I’ve always had the motivation to try to make a difference in the world. After Allegheny, I want to try to be the best citizen I can be.”