It is not uncommon for incoming students at Berea, or any institution of higher education, to experiment with various academic topics before choosing their major. Even so, there is a small fraction of students who handpick Berea College for the pursuit of that one career they have sought after for most of their lives. Rachel Saunders ’08 M.D. is one of those few students.
With a veterinarian for a grand-father and parents who emphasized giving back to their community, Saunders naturally inherited an affinity for caretaking. “As a kid, I volunteered a lot with my family,” Saunders said. “Medicine felt like a way for me to blend my love for science and my passion for giving back.”
Although Saunders grew up in Birmingham, Ala., she was well informed about Berea College, as both of her parents were Berea graduates. When choosing between two schools during her senior year of high school, her family’s income was cut in half.
“It ended up working out because previously, I wasn’t financially eligible for Berea.” Saunders said. “Since I knew I wanted to go into medicine, debt-free tuition was a huge motivating factor for me.”
Upon arrival at Berea, she felt immediately supported in her medical trajectory and the pursuit of her career. From the moment she stepped on campus, the support that would help her reach her goals was apparent.
“One of Berea’s taglines is that they “invest in lives of great promise,” and I feel like they really live up to that,” Saunders said. “I was able to do a lot of things that set me up for my current career.”
As a first-year student at the College, Saunders worked in health services at the local healthcare facility, White House Clinic. Her responsibilities included filing charts and scheduling appointments, which allowed her to see the operations of a medical office. This experience kick-started her involvement with extracurricular activities that would bolster her application for medical school.
With a little help from then-Berea College Trustee Dr. Chella David ’61 working at the Mayo Clinic and Berea Professor Dr. Dawn Anderson, during her sophomore year, Saunders landed a research internship at Vanderbilt University. “It provided me with insight of the inner-workings of a laboratory, hands-on experience with a surgeon and, overall, it gave me a lot of exposure to the medical environment.”
In preparation for the summer during her junior year, Saunders applied for and received two more prestigious internships: one with Yale and the other with Mayo Clinic. The latter seemed most appealing, as she would receive the support and mentorship of another then-Berea College trustee, Dr. Hal Moses ’58.
“That summer, I learned so much about research presentation,” Saunders said. “A requirement of the internship was to conduct bench research, analyze it and present it to a forum. This was great practice.”
In addition to technical skills and relevant career experience, Saunders was given the chance to network with talented professionals and field experts from all over the country. “I 100 percent credit Berea with my success in medical school and setting me up for my career trajectory,” she said.
After eight years of medical school and residency at the University of Kentucky, Saunders secured a full-time faculty position there and is now an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology (OB/GYN). She serves as chair of admissions for the College of Medicine and runs the third-year clerkship for OB/GYN specialties.
“I chose obstetrics and gynecology because I believe the health of our population is strongly tied to women,” Saunders explained. “Practicing obstetrics and also women’s health gives me the opportunity to guide our next generation in a healthy direction.”
Saunders expressed gratitude for having the ability to apply to any medical school regardless of cost. “Because I didn’t go into debt during undergraduate school, I had more freedom to choose what was the best fit for me.”
Although her pursuit of a medical career never wavered, Saunders is confident she wouldn’t have had the same opportunities without Berea’s help. “If it wasn’t for someone really trusting and believing in me, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” she said. “They took a chance on me, and I can never pay it back; but I can pay it forward. It motivates me to give to the next generation.”