The Northern Kentucky Campus inaugural class gained an irreplaceable opportunity to pave the way for future generations and improve health care in Kentucky.

A countdown echoed through the speakers of Newport Aquarium’s Riverside Room. Kenny Spear and his medical school classmates anxiously awaited the moment the clock struck noon. It was then they would open envelopes at their tables containing their coveted Match Day results, informing them where they would spend their first pivotal years as a doctor.

It was a big moment for Spear and his 29 classmates. They are the first class to graduate from the University of Kentucky College of Medicine-Northern Kentucky Campus, a new four-year regional campus in Highland Heights, Ky.

In fact, when this class applied to medical school, the campus space was not even finalized yet.

But these students took a chance. They entrusted the UK College of Medicine’s team of faculty and staff, the college’s strong curriculum, and its community partners to develop them into the physicians they always dreamt of becoming.

“I didn’t want to just feel like a number,” Spear said. “I wanted to feel like somebody who was part of the community. I’d say my experience here has really exceeded all of my expectations.”

For Spear, that Match Day letter would be a reflection of the hard work he put in for four years, as well as a testament to the “leap of faith” he took to reach such success.

But what he did not know yet was that his match would represent much more – a shining example of the UK College of Medicine’s mission in motion.

Four years of growth

As founding associate dean of the Northern Kentucky Campus, Steven Haist, MD, MS, has witnessed the Class of 2023 grow up from admissions interviewees to credentialed doctors on graduation Saturday, May 13. Each student played an important role in setting the standard for what the Northern Kentucky Campus could achieve.

“I don’t know if our students realize what they mean for the college and the state of Kentucky,” Dr. Haist said. “This isn’t something that’s done every day, every week, or even every year.”

The process for establishing the Northern Kentucky Campus actually began eight years ago. Acting Dean Charles Griffith, MD, MSPH, and fellow college and University leadership wanted to expand the college’s footprint in the state to train more physicians in Kentucky and address the state’s physician shortage.

The UK College of Medicine forged key partnerships with St. Elizabeth Healthcare and Northern Kentucky University (NKU) to develop a training site that would utilize the strengths of each institution. The vision was to offer medical students exceptional education through UK’s integrated curriculum, St. Elizabeth’s outstanding network of physicians, and NKU’s cutting-edge facilities and resources. And through this partnership, the college intended to put a special focus on recruiting future physicians from Northern Kentucky and the surrounding regions.

The Northern Kentucky Campus celebrated its first white coat ceremony, “the initiation into medical school,” in the summer of 2019. Each student in the inaugural class received a four-year scholarship thanks to a generous $2.5 million contribution from St. Elizabeth.

“Our partner organizations went above and beyond to show their faith in our students and commitment to our mission,” Dr. Griffith said. “We could not have achieved such success without them.”

The Northern Kentucky Campus currently encompasses approximately 20,000 square feet of the NKU Albright Health Center with two large classrooms, two conference rooms, five standardized patient rooms, a physical exam lab, and six group study rooms. Medical students can use NKU’s state-of-the-art simulation center, located just a short walk away. Meanwhile, they work closely with St. Elizabeth Healthcare physicians and gain clinical experience across the community hospital system, primarily at the Edgewood, Ky., facility and the Dearborn, Florence, Ft. Thomas, and Grant facilities.

Students have benefited from the campus’ unique, supportive, and intimate training experience. (The campus admits 35 students per class.)

“When you’re in a small class size like this, you know your classmates, what they enjoy, what their passions are, what their kids’ names are,” said Christa Mattingly, a fourth-year Northern Kentucky Campus student from Shepherdsville, Ky. “The small class size was the best thing for my learning style. It allowed me to get to know the people I’m working with, like the professors and the preceptors.”

Fourth-year Ryan Yadav said he never imagined having such hands-on experience as early as his third year of medical school, but at the regional campus, he had plentiful one-on-one interactions with St. Elizabeth physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists, and other providers. He was able to “scrub in” with a surgeon in the operating room and hold a camera on a case. He helped deliver babies – and even wrote his name on a birth certificate.

A community, inside and out

Together, the close-knit team at the Northern Kentucky Campus has become embedded in the general Northern Kentucky community over the past four years. Holly Danneman, MD, the campus’ new associate dean, credits much of this to the mission-driven students. The inaugural class helped establish a free student-run clinic, Compassionate Care Reaching yoU (CCRU), at the local emergency shelter providing care for underserved populations. 

“CCRU was not in existence until our students got here,” Dr. Danneman said. “It demonstrates the devotion of our students to not just get a great education but also help the community in the process.”

After four years of medical school, Yadav said there is a community within the campus, too. He felt a personal connection to leadership and staff. His deans know him on a first-name basis. He can pop in anytime to ask a question to Shannon Schumacher, student affairs officer, or Emily Scanlon, MEd, the college’s student success director. During the throes of COVID-19, Yadav and his classmates each received a personal call from Dr. Haist to make sure they were OK.

“Here I felt very cared for, very heard, and very supported,” said Yadav.

Dr. Haist has since joined the college’s central campus in Lexington, Ky. as associate dean for curriculum and assessment. He gets teary-eyed as he reflects on his four years leading the campus. To him, that success has always been rooted in the dedication of his students.

“I hope these students have a great sense of pride and accomplishment for what they have helped us do,” he said. “They have set the tone. They have got our compass pointed in the right direction. And I think they have set such a high bar for the classes behind them.”

A powerful Match Day result

As Kenny Spear sat in anticipation of opening his Match Day letter, he yearned for a result telling him he was accepted into St. Elizabeth’s family medicine residency program. He enjoyed working with their team during clinical rotations, and he wanted to stay in the Northern Kentucky region to serve Kentuckians in the early years of his career.

Seated between his mom and his wife, Spear opened his envelope, and the table erupted with happy tears. He matched into his top choice.

There was additional weight to the impact of Spear’s match. He helped the UK College of Medicine break records, not only as part of the largest class in the UK College of Medicine’s history but also as one of 78 students across all sites to match into an in-state residency program, a doubling since 2018.

In short, Spear’s Match Day result exemplified what UK College of Medicine leadership strived to achieve when they started the process for regional expansion – train physicians in Kentucky, for Kentucky.

“As much as this is a celebration of the end of medical school, I think it’s even more of a celebration of the beginning of our careers as physicians and of everybody who chose to come to this campus,” Spear said.

Thanks to hard-working faculty, community partners – and, most importantly, mission-driven students – the UK College of Medicine celebrates the achievement of a dream. There are three campuses, each with four classes of medical students, and a full-fledged specialized training program focused on rural medicine.* The UK College of Medicine is more equipped than ever to address the state’s need for more accessible health care.

Spear and the Class of 2023 are more than future doctors who took a leap of faith. They are trailblazers representing the possibility of a shared vision and the power of a community.

*The UK College of Medicine has a central campus in Lexington, two four-year regional campuses in Bowling Green and Northern Kentucky, and the Rural Physician Leadership Program in Morehead.