TAHLEQUAH — She wanted to get there before any students, so Associate Dean Natasha Bray got to campus at 7 a.m. on the first day of classes. The building was already lit up, classrooms clearly visible from the parking lot through expansive walls of glass. And Bray could see dozens of young people already moving around inside, exploring.
“That’s how excited they were to see their new school,” she said. “They couldn’t wait.”
Officials took it as a positive sign early in this $40 million experiment, a partnership between Oklahoma State University and the Cherokee Nation to open a medical school in a very non-traditional location.
Would students pass over urban campuses to come to a rural, small town?
So far, yes. The first 54 students began virtual studies last fall and in-person classes began this month, in an 84,000-square-foot building so new that a construction crew was still working on the main entrance Thursday afternoon. A second class of 50 students has already been enrolled, set to begin classes in the fall.
“I think it’s a huge generational thing,” said Bray, noting that in her college days students wanted to get away from small towns. “A rural lifestyle has a different meaning now, when you can still have Whole Foods delivered to your front door. Technology has changed the way we connect with the rest of the world, so you don’t have to be in a big city to have that experience.”
The campus’ long-term success, however, won’t be measured by enrollment numbers alone. The ultimate goal is to ease the shortage of physicians in rural Oklahoma, and especially in tribal health-care systems.
Putting medical students in a rural setting from day one will encourage them to stay in a rural area after they graduate and go into practice, said Dr. William Pettit, dean of the OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine at the Cherokee Nation.
“We want them to get comfortable in a rural setting and see the opportunities that are available to them in a rural setting,” Pettit said. “They’ll experience the lifestyle and be more likely to stay.”
In the first partnership of its kind in the United States, the university and the tribe announced plans in 2018 to open the medical school next door to the Cherokee Nation’s existing Hastings Hospital, where OSU already had a residency program. The arrangement allowed OSU to grow enrollment while giving the tribe an opportunity to address a shortage of health-care providers in northeast Oklahoma, a part of the state with a heavy Cherokee population.
Students apply to the OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine and express a preference for the new Tahlequah campus or the long-established Tulsa campus. Expanding the Tulsa campus, instead of building a new facility out of town, would have been difficult, given the constraints of the site along the west side of the Arkansas River, Pettit said.
More importantly, however, OSU wanted to offer students a small-town experience, where Tahlequah has a population under 17,000 — about a third of the size of Stillwater, where OSU’s main campus is located.
The students who come here are specifically looking for the rural lifestyle, said Caitlin Cosby, a first-year medical student and a citizen of the Choctaw Nation.
She has first-hand experience with the shortage of health-care in a rural and tribal area, Cosby said. And she’s going to medical school to be part of the solution.
The small-town atmosphere “feels comfortable and nice,” Cosby said. “It’s very competitive, but not in the way that people are trying to eat each other. Everyone is trying to help each other be the best they can be.”