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ROCHESTER – Students in caps and gowns crossed the auditorium to the tune of “Pomp and Circumstance.” Moms snapped photos from the edges of their folding chairs. The chancellor spoke from a podium flanked by maroon and gold bouquets.
It looked like a typical graduation. Except that it had never been done before.
The University of Minnesota, Rochester celebrated its very first class of undergraduates at a commencement ceremony Saturday morning.
“These are my trailblazers,” Chancellor Stephen Lehmkuhle said beforehand.
They picked a university with no dorms, no mascot, no upperclassmen. (The campus now has all three.) The curriculum was a concept, never before tested.
“All of us felt like we were taking a gamble,” said Hannah Salk, from St. Joseph, Minn. But being first “attracted all of us to the school, too.”
Fifty-seven undergraduates started in the bachelor of science in health sciences program at the new campus in 2009. Just 29 of those students graduated. Even with a dozen students in another program, the ceremony — music, speeches, diplomas and a video — took just an hour.
The undergraduates’ four years have set a standard for the classes that follow. What they accomplish next will help officials and faculty members determine whether their approach, which differs in many ways from a traditional college experience, is working.
“I have no doubt that students are learning,” said Yuko Taniguchi, a writing faculty member. “The part we constantly question and evaluate is: Is this the most efficient and effective way to deliver curriculum?”
The campus’ focus on the health sciences was inspired by its proximity to Mayo Clinic, and leaders envisioned close connections — guest speakers, internships, time in a cadaver lab.
Its plan to grow from a few hundred undergraduate and graduate students to 5,000 is tied to the clinic’s plans to expand, Lehmkuhle said. “We are in some ways planning our futures together.”
As freshmen, about half of the students had planned to go to medical school. Now, just a few will apply. Some students decided against health care entirely and transferred to other schools. Others abandoned their plans to be a doctor after hearing from professionals in fields they had never before imagined.
“Many realized that they can help people … without placing hands on them, diagnosing them, cutting them open for surgery,” said Parry Telander, the first class’ “student success coach.” Telander guided the first class for all four years, assisting the students not only in picking classes but also, in many cases, a career.
Some plan to work in public health, a few in health care administration. Many hope to get graduate degrees.
Brett Sawall, from Clintonville, Wis., feels prepared to enter the workforce: “They really set you up to be a thinker, not just a worker.”
But the campus’ lack of name recognition has been a hurdle with employers. “They’ve never heard of the degree,” he said. “They’ve never really heard of the school.”
Mayo knows the university, of course, but passed on Sawall’s application for an ultrasound certification program. When Sawall started at Rochester, he had the impression that most students would work at Mayo afterward. “That’s not been the case,” he said.
Lehmkuhle gets the question from parents “all the time”: Will graduating from this university guarantee a spot in Mayo Medical School?
“No, that’s not the nature of the relationship,” he said. “I don’t believe those kinds of programs work. Students have to earn their way in.”
Several seniors have.
Salk, one of the few still planning on med school, is already a lab technician at Mayo’s Vaccine Research Group. She works alongside postdoctoral fellows — running tests, sending data and writing papers. During one class final presentation earlier this month, Salk wrapped up by asking if there were any questions. Her instructor, Andrew Petzold, had one: “Do you know how effective looking at antibody titer levels in a younger population is?”
Salk’s partner demurred, saying that the researcher hadn’t gone into that. But Salk stepped up. “From work, I know that … in the young, it’s still a good measure of protective immunity,” she began.
Petzold nodded as she spoke, pleased.
When Lehmkuhle took the job in 2007, consultants warned: “Beware of your first class. You’ll get so attached to them,” he said.
The first semester, in 2009, Lehmkuhle invited the freshmen over for dinner, eight or so at a time. Salk was “so nervous,” she said. “And now it’s just like, ‘Oh hey, chancellor.’ ”
Salk remembers him telling the group to expect challenging, rigorous classes, but promised that they’d have ready access to faculty and coaches’ help.
“Everything he said was right on,” she said. “It was hard. It was rewarding. I had all the help I needed.”
On Saturday, before the ceremony in the big arena, Lehmkuhle again hosted the group — this time for breakfast. He moved from table to table, joking with some, asking others about their plans. Then he got the room’s attention.
“I have a lot of mixed feelings about today,” he said, choking up. “I’m going to miss you dearly.”