UT’s Fenves: Medical school’s first students bought into its vision

The Dell Medical School’s education building stands on what was a parking lot just two years ago at the University of Texas. Perhaps even more transformative is the curriculum, which emphasizes time in clinics over lectures, a team-based approach to patient care, opportunities for research and a passion for rethinking virtually every aspect of health care.

“To create a culture of change for the future of health care is an incredible accomplishment in an amazingly short period of time,” UT President Gregory L. Fenves said.

As for the school’s first class of 50 students, he said, “They bought into the vision and the potential.”

Fenves and other officials spoke Sunday at a news conference that served as something of a coming-out reception for the new medical school. Some of the incoming medical students attended as well. Orientation for the students begins Monday, and classes start July 5.

State Sen. Kirk Watson, who jump-started what had been off-and-on efforts to establish the medical school, told the students that they are the personification of “the needs, goals and desires” of many people, including Travis County voters who agreed to raise property taxes to channel $35 million a year to the school.

“We’re counting on you to make history,” said Watson, a Democrat from Austin. As for being members of the Dell school’s inaugural class, he advised: “Make it a part of you and your life experience. It’s that big a deal, as big for Austin as the damming” of the Colorado River, which protected the city from flooding.

Steven Leslie, the UT System’s executive vice chancellor for academic affairs, told the students that their charge is the same as UT’s core mission: to transform lives for the benefit of society. Leslie, a former provost of the Austin campus, said the medical school never would have become a reality without the involvement of its partners, including the Seton Healthcare Family, which is building a new teaching hospital, and Central Health, Travis County’s hospital district, which provides care for uninsured and underinsured residents.

The significance of the moment wasn’t lost on the students. Several said they elected to enroll at the Dell school rather than a well-established school because of its emphasis on innovation and clinical experience.

“I think what pushed me over the edge was seeing some of the faculty they’d brought on board,” said Jeffrey Traylor, one of the students. “They were pulling people from very prestigious places, like UCSF and Dartmouth.” UCSF is the University of California, San Francisco.

Jack Webb, another student, agreed with that assessment, adding: “It’s a very innovative curriculum. We’ll be spending less time on books and more time in the community seeing patients.”

Clay Johnston, the Dell school’s dean, was all smiles Sunday, thanking one person after another for helping to establish the school. He told the American-Statesman a few months ago that he was concerned students might get exhausted. But Webb said he has prepared by getting enough rest and lifting weights.

“I’m definitely more excited than anxious,” Webb said. “It’s a welcome challenge.”

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