Innovative Program Guides Minority Students To A Career In Pharmacy

Originally Published by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
BY PAIGE VARNER • pvarner@post-dispatch.com • 314-340-8018

Two years ago, Mario Coronado was considering an engineering or pre-med major in college.

Now at 18, Coronado has a full-tuition scholarship to St. Louis College of Pharmacy worth about $130,000, and he’s guaranteed a job at Barnes-Jewish Hospital’s pharmacy for six years after he graduates.

He wouldn’t have received the scholarship — or had the desire to be a pharmacist — without attending the BESt Summer Pharmacy Institute in 2008 and 2009.

Because BESt — which introduces pharmacy to St. Louis public high school students — offers math and science classes, Coronado assumed it would help him no matter which career path he chose.

When he learned that pharmacists can practice in various settings — large retail stores, hospitals or independent pharmacies, for instance — he realized he could like pharmacy. He’s chosen clinical pharmacy so he can work in hospitals.

“It’s mostly because of the interaction with patients,” he said. “I think I’m a pretty caring person.”

BESt targets minority students because, as the 2009 National Pharmacist Workforce Survey has reported, minorities account for just 13 percent of licensed pharmacists even though they comprise more than a third of the U.S. population. In addition, the program helps counter an overall shortage in pharmacists over the past decade.

“There is definitely a need to prepare these students for the future model for expansion,” said Isaac Butler, BESt co-director and clinical program manager for Express Scripts, the business that sponsors the program with Barnes-Jewish and the College of Pharmacy.

BESt began in 2008 with 14 students. All 14 are going to college; nine have declared pharmacy as their majors.

Ten students are staying in Missouri for college, something Butler encourages so they can enrich the local community.

And nine of the 14 have academic scholarships, two of which pay for entire tuitions.

Coronado’s scholarship requires him to work part time at Barnes-Jewish’s central pharmacy while he is in school. He gets paid for the work, on top of his scholarship money.

This BESt class has surpassed Butler’s expectations, which were to send at least 30 percent to pharmacy school, 50 percent into health care fields and 75 percent to college.

Butler attributes BESt’s success to its core tenets: academics, exposure and professional development. Not only do students learn about pharmacy, they earn college credit for English and pre-calculus.

The program is free and even gives its students a $1,400 stipend.

Another summer pharmacy program, Career Explorers, has influenced 85 of 199 participants to attend pharmacy school since its start in 2001. Fifty-four went to the College of Pharmacy.

The college’s diversity director, Freddie Wills, said the minority applicant pool has increased because of this and the BESt program.

Career Explorers, sponsored by Walgreens and the College of Pharmacy, also targets minorities, but it is open to all students from public and private schools. Students get a $1,200 stipend.

Alex Milligan attended Career Explorers last year. He’ll be going to the College of Pharmacy this fall with more than $20,000 in scholarships.

In the 20-day career program, students are licensed as pharmacy technicians — the only cost associated with the program — and work in a Walgreens pharmacy for half the program, filling prescriptions and shadowing pharmacists.

Students spend the other 10 days learning terminology, recognizing medicines by sight, and making lip balm and calamine lotion in labs.

Milligan has renewed his license and will work at St. Louis Children’s Hospital as a pediatric pharmacy tech while attending college. That’s the setting in which he sees himself in six years, preparing medications for kids. “It seems like something I could do for the rest of my life,” he said.