Over the past eight years, Dr. John Vaughan has seen the students he’s mentored graduate, complete medical school and begin their residencies.

Vaughan is the director of the University of Richmond’s Pre-Health Studies Program, which prepares students for careers in health professions. Mentoring more than 200 students at any given time, Vaughan meets regularly with his advisees, helping them design curricula and select extracurricular activities that will guarantee them the greatest chance of getting into their graduate school of choice.

He begins working with students interested in health care careers almost as soon as they arrive on campus. Vaughan holds question-and-answer sessions for pre-health students during orientation week.

“I try to get them thinking about two to three years down the road when they’ll be applying to health professional schools,” Vaughn said. “I get them thinking about what these schools will be evaluating them on. They gain the perspective that there are certain things I need to accomplish as an undergraduate to make myself attractive to those types of programs.”

Vaughan says that while he devotes a great deal of time focusing on the academic requirements, he’s sure to emphasize that volunteerism and internships matter just as much, if not more.

He encourages students to get involved early because he says the only way to determine whether you want to work in the health care field is to go out and experience it.

“There’s not really any course you can take here at the University that’s going to answer that question for you: Should I be a doctor?" he said. "The only way to know is to put yourself in that position — go to a hospital, follow a doctor around, see what they do. You’ll know once you start interacting with patients whether or not this is something you can see yourself doing as a career.”

But Vaughan says he rarely needs to push any of his advisees to get engaged. In fact it’s quite the opposite. Pre-health students are so highly motivated that he sometimes has to encourage his students to rein in their efforts, so as not to stretch themselves too thin.

“They come in eager to get working," he said. "I have a lot of students who go out into the community and work with the doctors, dentists, etc. who they worked with during shadowing experiences. Most volunteer with the rescue squad or at hospitals and free clinics. If anything I have to be careful that they’re not too involved because their academics may start to suffer.”

And with such driven advisees, Vaughan says his biggest challenge is convincing them that falling short of one goal isn’t the end of the world — or the end of their medical careers.

"I see students, on a fairly regular basis, who come in with these myths about how perfect their records need to be if they’re going to be a doctor or a dentist.

"Sometimes I’ll get an e-mail saying, 'I'm dropping out of the pre-health program because I got a C in organic chemistry.'

"I’ll respond with, 'OK, what’s the problem?'

"Once I clarify with them what the expectations really are, they realize that they can stay in the program and that they don't necessarily have to change career directions."