A river of water flowing through a sunny New Mexican landscape
By Michael Haederle

Medical Mentoring

UNM Combined BA/MD Alumni Help Guide Current Students in Summer Practicum

Sarah Villarrial had to leave her hometown of Farmington, N.M., to appreciate what made it special.

The rising junior in the undergraduate phase of The University of New Mexico Combined BA/MD Degree Program spent the month of June in Farmington with four of her classmates as part of their Summer Practicum.

The students shadowed local physicians during patient visits, met with community members and studied health policy issues.


Sarah Villarrial

It has been so nice to come back to the community. You come back and you’re like, ‘Wow, this place is just amazing.’ You have such an appreciation for the community.

β€” Sarah Villarrial

“It has been so nice to come back to the community,” Villarrial said. “You come back and you’re like, ‘Wow, this place is just amazing.’ You have such an appreciation for the community.”

The Summer Practicum is an annual feature of the Combined BA/MD Program, a collaboration between the UNM College of Arts & Sciences and the UNM School of Medicine that was launched in 2006 to address the physician shortage in the state’s rural and underserved areas. Each year, the program admits 28 students from high schools all over New Mexico and the Navajo Nation who are committed to becoming doctors and serving the state.

This year’s Summer Practicum was unique in that several of the physicians helping to teach the curriculum are themselves graduates of the BA/MD program, said program director Sushilla Knottenbelt, PhD.


Sushilla Knottenbelt
It feels very full circle. The program is realizing its mission and our alumni are practicing in these rural areas and connecting with the students coming up through the pipeline
β€” Sushilla Knottenbelt, Director, UNM Combined BA/MD Program

“It feels very full circle,” she said. “The program is realizing its mission and our alumni are practicing in these rural areas and connecting with the students coming up through the pipeline.”

The program has 49 practicing alumni, Knottenbelt said, 34 of whom are based in nine communities across New Mexico. Alumni tend to choose primary care specialties more often than their peers in the School of Medicine, she added.

Current participants in the program come from 30 of New Mexico’s 33 counties, and two thirds of them are from outside the Albuquerque metro area, she said.

This year’s Summer Practicum also sent students to Las Cruces, Las Vegas, Roswell, Hobbs, Silver City and Taos, Knottenbelt said. Eleven BA/MD alumni helped facilitate the students' educational experience, either by allowing students to shadow them in their rural practice or serving as "circuit riders," traveling to each community for weekly seminars covering the social determinants of health and the program's Health Medicine and Human Values curriculum.

During her practicum, Villarrial interacted with alumni circuit riders Nikifor Konstantinov, MD, and David Hernandez, MD. She also got to shadow fellow Farmington native William “Curtis” Young, MD, a family medicine physician who entered the BA/MD Program in 2008 and returned to the community in 2020 following a residency in South Dakota. Young’s father, physician assistant Bill Young, helped encourage Villarrial to apply to the Combined BA/MD Program while she was in high school.

Curtis Young says he had Villarrial in the room as a “fly on the wall” when he met with patients. “I introduced Sarah to them and told them she’s a Farmington girl that UNM is borrowing for a few years and then they’ll give her back,” he said.

Young’s wife, Shawna Young, MD, is a pediatrician who was a year behind him in the BA/MD Program.

“My wife was the first in her family to graduate from college, and being Navajo, she is now taking care of a near majority Navajo population in her practice,” he said. “In order to ‘hood’ someone at graduation, you have to be an MD, PhD or judge, or something. I had the amazing opportunity to place the hood on my wife at graduation.

“That’s something the BA/MD program made possible, and I’ll always be grateful for that. And now we practice together in a small New Mexico town trying to help other students believe in their dreams of helping people.”

Villarrial said shadowing Young on the job was one of the high points of her practicum experience.

“It’s been really cool,” she says. “Dr. Young is brilliant. He’s very intelligent. He’s in family medicine, so there is some down time if a patient cancels. He’ll sit me down and at a whiteboard and he’ll do a biochem lesson or he’ll teach me about a medical philosophy. He’ll ask his patients if it’s OK if I help with an exam.

“That hands-on learning is really amazing, because I think experience is the only way to learn medicine.”

Categories: Community Engagement, Education, School of Medicine, Top Stories