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Burnside, faculty make MEDPREP a welcoming environment

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Fifteen years ago, Randy Burnside, PhD, was in New Orleans with his wife, her family and a new 2-month-old son when Hurricane Katrina struck, pushing 8 feet of water into their home. He had just been hired to teach at SIU and was preparing to move to southern Illinois.

This year, Burnside began a new job as director of MEDPREP just as the coronavirus was making inroads into the United States. He had traversed the Carbondale campus to get there, as an associate professor teaching public administration courses in SIU’s Department of Political Science. His research was focused on behavior, bureaucratic leadership and management of disasters, and the socio-legal aspects of recovery.

Despite the turmoil that seemed to accompany them, new ventures in life don’t intimidate Burnside. “I’ve gotten used to working in disaster zones,” he says.

SIU’s Medical/Dental Education Preparatory Program — or MEDPREP — is the opposite of a disaster: It’s a proven success. The post-baccalaureate feeder program has been based in Wheeler Hall in Carbondale since 1972, producing 1455 alumni, of whom 253 have gone on to SIU School of Medicine (an average of nearly seven every year).

The program provides a rigorous but highly individualized atmosphere for underrepresented minority and disadvantaged learners, focused on academics as well as personal and professional development. Nearly two-thirds of its students are accepted to medical school within two years of finishing the program and almost 90 percent of those have graduated or are expected to graduate.

Burnside is a first generation college graduate from rural Mississippi. He joined the army at 17 to earn money for school, so he can closely identify with the struggles college students face today. “I’ve had to work for everything. A lot of our students come from poor, urban backgrounds. Costs have climbed and most parents can only offer their moral support, not their financial support.”

Burnside says experiencing the Category 5 hurricane kick-started his focus on public administration. “The leadership of elected officials is paramount during these disasters. In many ways it dictates how the public responds.”

He sees parallels in the current pandemic. “There are states where leadership has taken steps to protect the public and imposed stricter health measures. Others have been less authoritative about regulating behavior. Without quality leadership, you can have a mess.”

At MEDPREP, the pandemic uprooted traditional teaching methods favored by students and faculty, forcing the staff to review curriculum and health protocols and examine the ways new learners were recruited. Classes became virtual; distance learning was encouraged.

With his background in disaster management and edicts to make safety paramount, Burnside was impressed by what he saw.

“Everyone has embraced this as an opportunity to be creative and innovative, and it has gone exceptionally well.” While teaching face-to-face might be preferred, learner feedback for the new normal has been excellent, he says.

Complicating matters, the students had to work through a second maelstrom created by the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of the police.

Burnside and MEDPREP instructors discussed the tragedies with them, using materials from the SIU System Diversity Council’s ‘Conversations of Understanding’ (Burnside is a council member). He encouraged the students to attend the virtual sessions that dealt with mental health and systemic racism.

In September he invited Dr. Courtney Bodie, director of counseling services at SIU Edwardsville, to talk to the students about mental health and self-care during turbulent times. The dialogues spurred some individuals to seek help within Carbondale’s counseling center.

Prior to coming to MEDPREP, Burnside knew a number of the students from around SIU, from church and as acquaintances. He thinks his new transition, coupled with an open-door policy, has gone smoothly, all things considered.

“The structure around here is pretty sound,” he says. “These are bright young people who are dealing with a lot, mentally and emotionally. I know the dreams they have. We want to make that possible for them.”

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