A medical student travels an unconventional road to TCOM
One of new faces belongs to Clarence Sparks, 36, a one-time college dropout who enters the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine as a first-year medical student.
Sparks is part of the first group of students to arrive at UNTHSC via the Primary Care Pathway Program, an innovative partnership between the Health Science Center, Midland College and the University of North Texas in Denton that accelerates students’ medical education and relieves some of the stress of applying to medical school.
Only a few years ago, the idea of attending medical school was something Sparks could never have envisioned.
When Sparks first enrolled at Midland College, he had dreams and ambitions like all college students. Those dreams were quickly dashed when Sparks was diagnosed with Osgood-Schlatter disease. The debilitating disease, which causes significant knee swelling and pain, got so bad it would require surgery on both of his knees. At 21, Sparks feared his college career was over.
“I was barely making ends meet at the time, and ironically it was the medical bills that forced me to drop out of college the first time,” Sparks said. “It took me three years to pay off the medical bills from the surgery and quite literally get my legs back under me.”
That’s when Sparks decided to go to vocational school. He would spend the next 10 years in various roles within the medical field – a medical assistant, lab assistant, helping doctors and hospitals along the way. But the idea of Sparks himself becoming a doctor?
“I honestly started to look at medical school because I was getting a little frustrated with what I couldn’t do. As an assistant, I could only do so much and was limited,” he said.
Sparks began taking classes at Midland College in hopes of becoming a nurse practitioner. It was there that he first heard about the Primary Care Pathway Program.
“A professor there came in and pitched me the idea about the program. I had to think about it for a few days because it sounded just way too good to be true,” he said.
It wasn’t, and Sparks was admitted to the program in 2016.
Journey to Fort Worth
TCOM’s Primary Care Pathway Program, is not easy. Students who enter the program must go through a rigorous curriculum at Midland College for two years before attending UNT in Denton for a year.
Sparks admitted, “It was so much more than I thought it would be.” But the toughness of the program brought out the best in Sparks.
“The program deserves so much credit because it really made me push myself,” he said. “I was working, tutoring other students and still taking a full class load. To be honest, I couldn’t get enough of it, that’s how much I loved it.”
Students must complete the three-year undergraduate sequence of study with no less than a 3.5 GPA, without retaking any courses, dropping courses or scoring less than a “B” in any math or science course. After two summer internships, one at Midland Memorial Hospital and one at TCOM, and co-curricular activities, students earn early admission into TCOM without an MCAT score.
It wasn’t easy, but Sparks had made it.
A dream come true
When asked if he ever thought he would make it to this point, without hesitation Sparks said, “No, no, oh no. That’s the too-good-to-be-true part right? I just thought it was always just a dream that’s a little further out, and even now I still really can’t believe it.”
The dream has become a reality, but Sparks knows the hard work isn’t over. He also feels a bit of pressure, knowing that he’s part of the first group of students in the Primary Care Pathway Program to enter TCOM, and wants to live up to the expectations that have been set.
“We really need to show them what we can do, but I feel very well prepared because of how much we have already done,” Sparks said. “I feel like we are representative not only of the region (Midland) but also community colleges. Midland College assembled an amazing group of professors to help us.”
The long winding road for Sparks and the rest of the Primary Care Pathway Program students has gotten them into medical school, so what will the future hold?
“I’ve done a lot of work with internal medicine, but I also made a trip to Haiti with a professor and family medicine is something I’ve thought about, and then pathology as well.”
The options are unlimited for Sparks no matter what road he chooses. The Primary Care Pathway Program has opened the door for Sparks and will do so for countless others in the future.
Money, education, high test scores and so many other preconceived notions that medical school is out of reach for vast majority are simply not true.
Clarence Sparks takes seriously UNTHSC’s purpose to transform lives by improving the lives of others. For him, it is the place where transformative dreams can come true.